The COVID-19 pandemic is having profound impacts on universities. With established ways of doing business placed under severe strain, this critical juncture has reframed the challenges facing cities, universities, and students looking to compete in a global knowledge economy. In the following, I offer some initial observations on the pandemic’s impact on student life and urban universities. However, it is one thing to ruminate on the impacts of a global pandemic and another to live through them. The anxiety, stress, and emotional labor brought on by COVID-19 are high. Students are experiencing unprecedented difficulties – please see the CDC’s student support guidelines here.
COVID-19 has generated a number of uncertainties but there are two constants: first, the effects of the virus (and responses to it) are socially and geographically uneven and second, they have served to exacerbate existing structural inequalities. This is certainly the case at the intersection of student housing, university urbanism, and infectious disease.
Far from isolated ivory towers located in, but not of, their cities, urban universities have deep, extended, and often complex ties with the places they call home. The rise of an increasingly urbanized form of knowledge capitalism has not only reaffirmed universities as privileged sites of knowledge production, but foregrounded their vital roles as financial vehicles for, and drivers of, urban development. This is no more apparent than in Atlanta, where over the past decade, the development of luxury student housing has played a major role in reshaping the city’s skyline. On the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction was proceeding apace on luxury lofts and super dorm towers that portend the transformation of the student experience (for those who can afford monthly rents starting at $1,000 and up per room) and the neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta’s higher education institutions.
Adding thousands of beds to Atlanta’s upscale student housing market is clearly big business – producing a commodity that funders suggested in November 2019 “was always in high demand”. Renderings of these projects and the promise of urbane student living, though, sit in harsh contrast to images of rapidly emptying dorms and vacated quads as universities closed on-campus housing in response to the pandemic.
The current crisis has created immediate issues for students attempting to continue their studies remotely while in many instances assuming greater responsibilities at home. Others, including international students, have no readily-available alternative housing options. Although universities have closed residences and, in some instances, partially reimbursed room and board charges, disruptions to stable accommodation and access to on-campus resources like libraries are hitting students hard – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. University closures are depriving students experiencing homelessness of vital resources, from showers to food banks and internet access. Indeed, the pandemic has served to illuminate the differentiated experiences and biting inequalities (e.g. food insecurity) faced by diverse student communities – markedly for Black students in the United States who studies suggest report significantly higher gains in personal, social, and educational development when living on-campus compared to off-campus.
Students living off-campus can face challenges akin to those of other economically vulnerable populations – from ensuring building maintenance to the risks of eviction. This is a global story. In the UK, students struggling to pay their rent during the lockdown have responded by organizing rent strikes and breaking leases. In South Africa – where the majority of students are poor, Black youth from the townships who tend to live in dense clusters of low-quality off-campus housing – COVID-19 has intensified the country’s existing student housing crisis while re-inscribing the legacies of apartheid writ in its urban and educational structures.
These experiences raise provocative conceptual and political questions. The impact of purpose-built student housing on surrounding communities has strong parallels with new-build gentrification – even though there are important distinctions in terms of transformations in the built environment and tenure, and in the forms of urbanism engendered by studentification. Yet the issues brought to the fore by the pandemic suggest that it is also important to understand certain metropolitan student populations, at a global scale, as constituting what urbanist Jay Pitter terms ‘forgotten densities’, where conditions of economic precarity lead to clustering in poor quality housing subject to ageing, disconnected infrastructure and predatory landlords. Viewing upscale student-led gentrification as fundamentally connected to student economic precarity paints a more complex picture of the relationships between students, urban development, and actually existing university urbanism.
The near-term future remains uncertain for both students and universities, even as many campuses hope to reopen for Fall 2020. What is clear is that COVID-19 will have major implications for universities’ finances, ushering in painful economic contractions. Despite monies provided through the CARES Act, the University System of Georgia estimates COVID-19 related losses to reach $350 million, including $200 million in reimbursements for students’ room and board. Whether it is public universities facing shrinking state budgets or private institutions with small endowments, the higher education sector will be operating in a precarious situation for years to come.
The situation will no doubt be compounded by a massive predicted drop in international student mobility. This impacts both cultural vitality of campuses and cities, and institutions’ bottom lines. With schools like the University of Manchester anticipating COVID-related losses of £270 million and looking at an 80% decline in international enrollment, the pandemic could decimate the UK’s higher education research sector. Many capital projects are now on hold. There are ramifications for on- and off-campus student housing, too. Global capital pooling into the luxury student housing market – fed in part by neoliberalizing universities’ drive for fee-paying international students – appears poised to drop off. Universities may still actively drive urban development, but by selling off of university lands for other forms of development to raise revenues.
Beyond the impact on universities’ economic contributions to their cities and regions, the COVID-19 pandemic raises questions surrounding urban dimensions of campus life in metropolitan areas. The necessities of social distancing problematize how urban society is experienced and who has the ability to enjoy – and sequester themselves from – its opportunities, risks, and vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen whether students – domestic and international – will want to return to either on-campus housing or urban university settings given both complex and simplified concerns surrounding density and the transmission of infectious diseases.
Yet urban life offers an opportunity for universities to help proactively lead social responses to the pandemic as opposed to retreating from the social and spatial proximities of their cities. Encounters with difference, as influential urban theorist Henri Lefebvre argued, are essential to urban life. They are also essential to the twenty-first century urban university. Universities, like cities, are points of centrality – vital for driving innovation, cultural exchange, and generating knowledge and understanding. They are at their best as open, porous, and engaged institutions.
The legacies of social distancing will impact everyday life and planning on and around university campuses (from delivering more course content online to increasing green space in campuses and reshaping schools as hubs for integrated active transportation). We may have to keep our distance physically. But the COVID pandemic serves as a call to action for universities to build new social solidarities, locally and globally. We can mobilize the new teaching pedagogies and technologies currently being rolled out to enhance social justice and strengthen the social infrastructure of cities and global urban networking. The differential – and highly gendered – temporalities of academic labor during the pandemic suggest that universities would do well to embrace practices of slow scholarship for faculty and students.
As I have argued with Roger Keil and Kris Olds, a core challenge here involves decentering the modern campus and integrating urban and university space to better serve people in places rather than drawing people to a singular university space. Remaking urban educational institutions, structures and practices to support those marginalized, silenced, or left behind – both inside and outside of the university – will be a difficult and lengthy process. But, as the lessons from COVID-19 are indicating, shifting our established paradigms of university urbanism is existentially crucial for realizing inclusive urban development, urban education, and urban life as we move beyond the pandemic.