Universities weighing up on-line or in-person HE delivery choices

As governments around the World cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education (HE) institutions themselves are wrestling with future course delivery options.  Their decisions could have a dramatic effect on accommodation provision and resulting profits for PBSH investors.

With most campuses closed since the pandemic took hold, HE providers are looking at the choices they have regards provision of courses.  On-line courses, already growing in popularity and number following the MOOC revolution, have become the only way universities and colleges have been able to maintain their education programmes since lockdown regimes have been introduced.

Now, as the year progresses and students will be looking to continue their studies in the safest environment available, providers are making their plans whether they be on-line or in-person.  In the United States, seven out of ten colleges recently signalled their intention to provide in-person tuition – this is no easy option as a world without a vaccine will demand a new paradigm of classroom safety and interpersonal contact restrictions.


Tracking college intentions for programme delivery, September 2020. Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

In a recent survey (see above) conducted by Chronicle of Higher Education, a leading US college information source, the remaining 30% were moving towards on-line, a combination of options or had yet to decide. Since publication of their findings however, California State University System with 23 campuses state-wide have announced they will be wholly offering on-line courses citing unacceptable risks within the traditional classroom setting.

“Our university, when open without restrictions and fully in person, as is the traditional norm of the past, is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity with each other on a daily basis,” said Chancellor Timothy White. “That approach, sadly, just isn’t in the cards now.” 

In a piece written by their senior education editor, finance-publisher Forbes suggested that as the US’ largest public university collective, California is likely to be a significant influencer as other states make their choices.

How other countries act may reflect the US position but will also depend upon their position within the pandemic cycle – Asia for example, is viewed as being towards the end having suffered Covid-19’s effects ahead of the rest of the World.  That said, their desire to avoid a “Second Wave”, may drastically affect how they provide courses going forward.

Canada is currently moving towards a mix of on-line and in-person provision.  McGill University has indicated it will maintain its on-line offerings and its Principal Suzanne Fortier said with a little more than two weeks to the deadline for students to confirm their places for September, she felt the university should be clear about what to expect.

Australia, which calculates its HE sector adds some AUD40billion annually to the economy, is planning to maintain its on-line course provision through July, and its three-step Covid-19 recovery plan includes international students being allowed in to the country in the final stage.  There currently is no firm indication, however, when campuses will re-open.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said: “We know students and staff are eager to restart face-to-face learning, but a cautious and gradual approach will be taken with the safety of our staff, students and communities as the top priority…We welcome the inclusion of international student travel down the track, in step three.”

Obligatory quarantines and only allowing in students from countries where Covid-19 is regarded as being under control, are all options that could have major impacts upon student recruitment, and in turn, demand for student accommodation from lucrative foreign students.

In the UK, Manchester a Russell Group member, has recently announced its courses will be conducted primarily on-line with some small tutor groups being permitted where conditions allow. As social distancing requirements are also likely to remain in place in the UK for the foreseeable future, other UK universities are expected to follow a similar path.

Where this leaves PBSH investors, of course, is yet to be seen.  In-person studies are preferable in most cases, yet perhaps less likely, so on-line would mean that fewer students will need to stay in accommodation close to their selected college – they could of course, even study from home.  It seems likely this will have a knock-on effect on investment returns over the short-term; quite simply the uncertainty itself is likely to stall investment and new development.

However, whilst medical experts remind us that Covid-19, albeit kept at bay with an effective vaccine is unlikely to disappear, its impact will eventually subside and rather more usual investment conditions should be expected in the medium-term, maybe as early as Q1/Q2 2021.

Indeed, with countries all around the World now holding immense post-Covid deficits and some already in recession, demands for good qualifications are likely to be stronger than ever and the numbers of students requiring good quality, convenient accommodation will surely resume its upward trajectory within a relatively short time.

European Property

On the broader front, Savills have recently forecast that while European property deals have slumped due to the virus, a U-shaped recovery is most likely as investors, developers and property owners adjust to a post-Covid world.  Some regions, notably SE and CE Europe, could see some falls in cross-border transactions, particularly from Asia-Pacific countries.

Governments are generally throwing money at the problem in order that they can maintain employment and prevent economic collapse.  These measures, whilst stoking huge national debts, are expected to mitigate much of the slowdown created by Covid-19.  However, it may be too early to forecast the eventual picture except that a contraction of some 10 – 15% q/q has been forecast by commentators.

Data and background: ICEF Monitor, Savills (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Chronicle of Higher Education (US), Forbes (US), Globe and Mail (Canada).