27 May 2020

COVID-19 and Higher Education: Education and Science as a Vaccine for the Pandemic

UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has forced the global academic community to explore news ways of teaching and learning, including distance and online education. This has proven challenging for both students and educators, who must deal with the emotional, physical and economic difficulties posed by the illness while doing their part to help curb the spread of the virus.  The future is uncertain for everyone, particularly for millions of students scheduled to graduate this year who will face a world crippled economically by the pandemic. 

In this series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) talks to students, educators and researchers in different parts of the world to find out how COVID-19 has affected them and how they are coping with the changes. The series also aims to highlight the lessons learned and potential positive outcomes of the global lockdown for higher education. 

To commemorate Spanish Language Day and to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on colleges and universities, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosted a Spanish-language webinar on 23 April titled Academia’s Response to Coronavirus: Together for Science, Solidarity and Solutions with participation of over 70 universities in a dozen countries from Latin America, as well as universities in France, Spain and Japan. 

Cristina Gallach, Spain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and for Ibero-America and the Caribbean and keynote speaker, made a poignant connection between liberty and freedom and academic inquiry, research and innovation. “What is going to give us freedom in a situation of pandemic? Science and research. Nothing but collaboration will lead us to win this battle. This is now more important than ever,” she highlighted.

“We have to take this opportunity to deepen this concept of shared mankind as we share not only a pandemic but a planet and our values,” she added. Ms. Gallach pointed out the need for academic cooperation and multilateral assistance to overcome the difficulties posed by the pandemic and contribute to the common good, while Milenko Skoknic, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations, stressed that COVID-19 does not distinguish between borders, gender or socioeconomic class and thus requires a global response. “Because of this there is a need of all us to work together to find solutions that allow us to face this pandemic,” he said. “This cannot be an individual effort,” he emphasized.

Mr. Skoknic noted that solidarity was embedded in higher education and universities could facilitate the sharing of knowledge through open courses, joint research, and new creative teaching methods and educational alternatives. “We need new tools and ways to spread knowledge.”

Panelist Francesc Pedró, Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, explained the findings contained in the UNESCO report COVID-19 and higher education: Today and tomorrow, which presents an overview of the impact of the pandemic on universities. Mr. Pedro noted that the swift spread of the pandemic upended many sectors, including higher education.

Mr. Pedró said that while institutions of higher education have tried to continue their teaching responsibilities, at least a third of students and an equal percentage of professors do not have access to the internet, hampering the success of a temporary transition to virtual education. The UNESCO-IESALC Director also voiced his thoughts on the technological and financial support universities need as well as psychological assistance for students and faculty. He also said that universities and States must guarantee access to higher education and that the current crisis must be an opportunity to transform universities in terms of quality and equality.

In his final remarks, Mr. Pedró noted that “While the physical borders between countries at the global level are closed for the time being, the borders of knowledge remain open and universities should, even in these circumstances, foster international initiatives in terms of teaching and research.”

UNAI member institutions who participated in the webinar raised concerns about the digital divide, noting that connectivity issues and lack of access to information and communication technologies is a challenge for millions of students, particularly in Latin America.

Other speakers pointed out that the pandemic demonstrated the relevance of global citizenship and the notion of a shared mankind, as well as the role of academia in promoting both concepts. The negative impact of the virus on international exchange programs of students and professors, as well as joint research activities was also mentioned.

For more information on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education check out this list of resources:  

Seminario en línea Respuesta del ámbito académico ante el coronavirus Juntos por los hechos