What research should the US fund more?

The images are the same: locked lecture halls, orphaned cafeterias, empty campuses, students clicking into seminars from the kitchen table, professors holding consultation hours on the phone. In the Corona age, it doesn't look much different at American universities than at German, Italian, British or Australian universities. And yet the virus affects a US university much more than a German university.

There is social life: in America, studying is similar to going to boarding school. Students live on campus, they eat three times a day in the "cafeteria", they meet for basketball, swimming or yoga, they have their cinemas and theaters, their art workshops and debating clubs. US colleges advertise students with sprawling leisure catalogs. A German university sees itself primarily as a teaching and research facility and leaves its students to their own devices beyond the lectures; an American university offers an all-round carefree package. But Corona makes it impossible to get around as usual, and so life on campus suffers as well as teaching there.

"Never before have so many students mentioned mental health problems, including depression," said Florian Justwan, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Idaho in Moscow, in a Skype interview. The German has been teaching there for six years. Some of his colleagues are also facing burnout because of the corona measures, says Justwan. "The guidelines for teaching are confused, they fluctuate constantly between online, hybrid and face-to-face teaching, that is a problem for us." His university claims to offer as many live events as possible while complying with strict corona regulations. However, you still had to look for information about Covid on the university's website in November.

Justwan explains it like this: Idaho is a conservative state with a republican government, on the one hand they prefer to talk about Corona in a small way, on the other hand they want to signal security to the students. Therefore, all students have to be tested daily, every morning the professors receive a negative / positive list, accordingly they are admitted to face-to-face courses. The canteens are only allowed to be entered through a temperature scanner, which is similar to an airport detector.

More than half of the foreign students came from Asia

Treasurers at US universities are even more affected than campus life. State and private universities finance themselves there through tuition fees. Because of Corona, freshmen could not start their studies in many places, according to the data collection institute National Student Clearinghouse, their number alone shrank by 16 percent compared to the previous year. If there are no students, there are no fees. The American Council on Education estimates the corona-related costs for universities nationwide at $ 120 billion - because tuition fees, housing rents or ticket income from sporting events are missing, but the costs for benefits or health measures are growing at the same time.

Above all, however, foreign students are leaving - and their contributions. You usually have to pay the full rate, while local students can expect discounts. The numbers speak for themselves: in 2018, a good million "international students" were enrolled at American universities. More than half of them came from China, Taiwan and India, and on average they paid almost $ 25,000 in fees a year. The fact that America's rectors are particularly vying for foreigners is less due to their cosmopolitanism than to budgetary thinking. The number of Chinese alone has tripled in the past decade.

In order to attract this affluent and demanding clientele, colleges have pimped up their equipment and leisure activities at great expense - and increased their fees accordingly. Their luxury image with its running costs could now become the doom of the universities if the wealthy Asians stay away because of Corona. And: This year some Chinese freshmen may also stay away out of national pride. The USA and China are in a relationship crisis, both politically and economically, and the rivalry between the high-handed presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping has escalated.

In this respect, Trump's threat came this summer that students from abroad would have to leave the USA if their university only offers online courses due to Corona, which is extremely inconvenient for the rectors. After protests by elite universities such as Harvard or MIT, the government withdrew the planned visa regulation, but Trump's curse still has an effect: Tobias Heinrich, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina, reports on the phone that his department specifically a face-to-face doctoral seminar has been scheduled so that the stay of foreign doctoral candidates is not endangered. The course is the exception, all other courses of the faculty take place online. "I haven't been to campus since March and teach completely from my living room," says Heinrich. In the summer, the 39-year-old German visited his parents at home for weeks - and taught from Holzkirchen to distant Columbia.

Wesleyan University in Ohio abolished 18 subjects

The decline in the number of students - both international and local - has dramatic consequences for colleges: sports programs are being canceled, administrative staff laid off, and the University of Florida wants to take some of its faculty off. The bad news hits primarily the humanities and social sciences. According to New York Times Elite universities like Princeton, Rice or the University of California at Berkeley no longer accept PhD students in anthropology, sociology and art history. Wesleyan University in Ohio is even doing away with 18 subjects, President Rock Jones announced in October: comparative studies or journalism will be eliminated, religion and philosophy will be merged, black and women studies will be subsumed under "critical identity studies". The measures should save the Wesleyan four million dollars.

Even before Corona, the financial situation was tense in some places. "In my department a year ago we had the biggest budget crisis in decades," says Florian Justwan. Especially the "humanities" are decried by some republican governors as orchid subjects and because of "system irrelevance". Universities from Washington also came under fire. President Trump, who likes to be worker-friendly and anti-intellectual, repeatedly questions the meaning of higher education. In July he accused universities in a tweet of pursuing "left-wing radical indoctrination" rather than education; the Ministry of Finance should review their tax exemption status.

In fact, more recently, government grants have declined while fees have increased. For American students and their parents who are normally well off, studying is often no longer financially viable, while others go into debt. Many students and graduates hope that Trump's designated successor, Joe Biden, will partially cancel their debts; he had hinted at this in the election campaign. And of course Biden is expected to normalize relations with China. However, this is unlikely to help US universities in the short term as long as the pandemic continues.

The situation is similar in Great Britain, Canada and Australia; their renowned universities also attract an international student body, especially from Asia. In the UK, 120,000 Chinese were most recently enrolled - before the pandemic mind you. The universities benefit enormously from this influx. At Australian universities, foreigners make up a third of the income. At McGill University in Montreal, foreigners have to spend a good 45,600 Canada dollars a year, while a local only has to spend 2,600.

The Chinese ambassador promptly returned the favor

Australia closed its borders in March due to Corona. At the same time, the government urged foreign students to leave the country if they could not earn a living on their own. Given the trade war and political discord between the two countries, that didn't go down well in the Middle Kingdom. The revenge of the Chinese ambassador in Canberra followed promptly: If Australia continues to criticize China, Chinese citizens could stop sending their children to expensive Australian universities, he threatened.

They would probably regret it. The attraction of studying lies in adventure, in meeting other, possibly exotic customs, new people and their fun, far away from habits and certainties, during the day in a seminar, in the evening with a beer. Corona is ruining this way of studying. The universities will still hope that freshmen and "international students" sit out the pandemic - because they have hardly any alternatives: traveling around the world is not possible, the job market looks bad. Then maybe a degree after all, even on the laptop from home.