Spare a thought for the class of 2020. Robbed of the last few months of school, deprived of that overwhelming relief when the ink dries on that final exam paper, stripped of the liberties all teenagers hold so dear. And now they await the misery of a socially distanced university experience.

Faced with this unappealing prospect, a number of pupils will defer their place from autumn 2020 to 2021. After all, who wants to attend “virtual freshers’ week,” where staff will reportedly be issuing on-the-spot fines to students caught socialising outside of their bubbles? Others may question whether the course that has been charted for them by a secondary school curriculum structured around entry to university is the right one.

Of equal concern to higher education institutions is the sharp fall in income from overseas students, and in other income sources, over the vacation. All this amounts to a massive and acute cash flow crisis. But this is not simply the impact of an unprecedented event within a fundamentally robust system. The financial hit is so severe because much of the sector was already extremely vulnerable. It had overextended, borrowed excessively, and witnessed a steady decline in the value of its product in terms of the return delivered.

The real fear of vice chancellors everywhere, therefore, is that events of this year and the next two could cause a permanent fall in demand for places in HE. It could be the point where the desire to study at UK universities takes a sudden nose dive.

Because beyond the current, well-documented financial rupture there are basic and profound questions to be asked about the product and service universities offer, and the way the system is run and financed. The pandemic has crystallised and clarified pre-existing concerns that Tony Blair’s expansion policy was a hugely expensive scam.

Covid-19 will force us to re-examine HE’s nature, its place in society, and the value of the higher-level education for those who receive it. If, as the evidence shows, growth in university attendance and costs has failed to boost skills or productivity, improve social mobility, or raised GDP growth, what is its purpose?

new report from the Institute of Economics Affairs concludes that there should be a major shift in priorities, and in the level and direction of state funding for HE.

At the root of the debate lies the most basic question: what does a degree do? While graduates historically enjoy an income premium and secure higher status roles, the good being supplied by HE institutions is not more productive workers. It is the signal a degree will send to prospective employers.

Yes, for some students, the degree remains a consumption good with an inherent value. But they are in the minority. For most, the value of attending lies in the pre-existent qualities and attributes – conscientiousness, compliance – that it signals, making the holder a good bet for employment.

All this means that sort of competition that we see in other markets – of price competition, product variation and price differentiation – has been significantly impaired. Instead the competition is over things like the non-educational experience and facilities, the perceived status of institutions, and the networking effects of attendance.

This has had catastrophic consequences. We now have a situation where costs and expenditures have soared while the quality of the experience has declined. Grades have been inflated in a desperate attempt to raise the value of the signal (which has failed because everyone does it, so the outcome is that everyone gets higher grades), and we are now in the ludicrous situation where some students are seeking additional qualifications because even a first class degree won’t suffice.

Yet the jobs themselves are not demanding any greater level of skill or capacities that can only be acquired at university. In over 90 per cent of cases the graduate will use nothing at all of the skills or knowledge that they acquired at university in their subsequent employment (and will probably forget most of it). 35% of recent UK graduates now in non-degree level occupations.

Unfortunately, while concerns that there is something fundamentally wrong and misguided with the whole HE policy of successive governments are now being articulated by members of the political class, the evidence is that they have not yet fully grasped the extent of both the problem and the opportunity that the pandemic represents. There is a very real risk that decision-makers will succumb to pressures over a bailout, but this will only enable universities to continue as before.

As Dr Stephen Davies has pointed out, these problems cannot be resolved by a continuation or expansion of previous policies. Wholesale reform is required. We need a pluralistic model – different kinds of institutions organised in different ways with different funding streams and different missions. We need alternative, lower-cost methods to certify those attributes and abilities that a degree currently signals. The HE sector was broken long before the pandemic struck. Only bold thinking – of the sort we used to associate with a university education – will fix it.

Full report – To a Radical Degree: Reshaping the UK’s Higher Education for the post-pandemic world.

Annabel Denham is Director of Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank.