The COVID19 pandemic has sparked a crisis which will have long-term health, economic, social and political consequences. Much attention has been given to the impact on businesses and the economy, and on public services such as health, social care and education. There has been somewhat less focus on the likely impact of the pandemic on higher education. Universities are highly complex and diverse, not only from country to country but also from university to university. Their various roles and ‘missions’ are key not only to pandemic response but also to long-term recovery and transformation. Unfortunately, the crisis and its aftermath are likely to hit the ability of many universities to do this.

Universities, as research-performing organisations with infrastructure, equipment and skilled personnel have been contributing to short-term responses to the pandemic, whether donating stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) or equipment, facilities and expertise for mass testing. They have provided scientific, social-scientific and humanities-based expertise and perspectives on the response to the crisis, for instance by conducting new research relevant to the crisis or by offering expertise to inform decision-makers or the wider public debate. In the medium-term, research-based expertise in universities will be as crucial to debates about how to lift lockdown restrictions whilst minimising risks as it currently is to the search for vaccines and effective treatments.

In the longer term, universities, as repositories and sources of knowledge, will have an important role to play in key debates about what kind of ‘new normal’ societies want to see, and how best to get there – for instance how we can transform city streets for safer cycling and walking, how we find a new balance between digital and face-to-face interactions, how we transform institutions to support wellbeing, and more generally how we shift our economies onto a new trajectory of development. These are big complex questions that demand interdisciplinary answers from our universities.

The most socially and economically impactful ‘mission’ of universities is the teaching one. In most economic crises, universities can, to some extent, play a counter-cyclical role: when labour markets contract they can absorb young people who might otherwise struggle to find work, then release them into the recovering economy equipped with knowledge, skills and attitudes that can contribute to recovery. In the longer term the talented, adaptable graduates and advanced graduates they produce can be entrepreneurs and promoters of new kinds of societal or business ideas, helping to shift to a new post-crisis trajectory.

The widely accepted ‘third mission’ of universities, that is their broader societal and economic engagement, including civic engagement, is also hugely important during and after times of crisis. We have already noted that universities constitute a reservoir of capacity to contribute towards crisis response. In many cases, the capacity of universities to analyse data and reflect on problems is stronger than that in local governments. In much the same way universities can help by loaning PCR machines or skilled technical staff for testing, expertise from across the university can provide much needed additional policy analysis capacity in a crisis. In this sense universities are not only nodes in global knowledge networks but also an important contributor to the resilience of the places, regions and nations in which they are located. In the medium and longer term this broader civic/third mission capacity may be particularly important in the co-creation of new futures, and in supporting local adaptation to them.

As noted above, some of these crisis roles of universities are potentially counter-cyclical. However, the present pandemic looks likely to hit universities hard, whether in systems such as the US, UK and Australia, where international student fees play such an important role in university finances, or in more traditional state-funded systems, where post-crisis constraints on public spending are likely. The crisis will impact research universities that rely strongly on overseas students, but also smaller universities highly dependent on teaching income. It will also hit some local economies particularly badly, given the significant local multiplier effects that universities generate via their own spending and student expenditure. Despite this dire situation, even in the short-term some governments are proving reluctant to provide specific emergency support for universities.

Universities, through their three missions of teaching, research and wider engagement, are in a unique position to help their places, their regions and nations deal with this crisis, and emerge from it to build better futures. But there is a significant risk that decisions taken by policy-makers and sector leaders now and in the coming months to deal with short-term funding and operational challenges will impact negatively on the capacity of universities to contribute in the medium term.

Of course, universities too need to be ready to change to meet the new challenges of the post-Covid 19 world. But such changes should be subject to careful, critical debate that takes into account all the roles universities can and do play. Short term decisions to reduce research capacity in non-priority areas, to close programmes and courses down or to otherwise prioritise activities most likely to generate cash or funding over others, may have long term consequences and should be taken with both organisational and societal interests in mind. Policy makers will need to take the medium and longer-term regional development impacts of any such decisions into consideration. At the same time any bailout to universities can and should be designed in order to promote better engagement with civic partners, a stronger focus on genuinely interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research and a more meaningful joining-up of these agendas with the core teaching mission that will remain the most important role of universities in the years to come.

Elvira and Kieron have collaborated with the Orkestra team in recent years through various activities such as organising joint academic seminars and events, editing and publishing academic articles in high impact international journals or collaborating in European research networks. You can visit one of their most recent articles here.

elvira uyarra

Elvira Uyarra

Elvira Uyarra is Reader in Innovation Policy and Strategy at Alliance Manchester Business School (University of Manchester) where she is also co-director of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. Elvira is also professor II at the Mohn Centre for Innovation and Regional Development, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, and visiting fellow at the Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) of Birkbeck, University of London. She is a fellow of the Regional Studies Association (RSA), Chair of the North West if England branch of the RSA, and editor of the journal Regional Studies, Regional Science.


Kieron Flanagan

Kieron Flanagan is a Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Policy at the Alliance Manchester Business School and a member of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. He has published conceptual and empirical work on a range of issues in science, technology and innovation policy and has worked with or advised international, national and regional/local policy-makers. He is an active commentator on science, technology and economic development policy and has been quoted in a range of publications. He also comments on science policy issues on Twitter as @kieronflanagan and at *Research (Research Fortnight), and previously contributed and co-edited The Guardian 'Political Science' science policy blog.