4 May 2020

COVID-19 and Higher Education: Learning to Unlearn to Create Education for the Future

Last November while discussing the theme of ‘Opportunities and Strategies for Collaborative Higher Education Impact in Emerging Economies’ during the UN Academic Impact (UNAI) 10th Anniversary Conference in India, we never imagined that ‘changes for collaborative higher education quality and sustainability’ would take on such urgency due to the COVID-19 global pandemic that has ushered in turbulence and uncertainty to every area of life, including education.   

The novel coronavirus has impacted employment, education, energy, agriculture and other areas of the world economy, including the emotional well-being of citizens. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including universities, colleges and other institutions in tertiary education, are no exception. A recent article notes that nearly 1.3 billion secondary and tertiary school-age students worldwide are unable to attend school due to the ongoing crisis, which is likely to have a huge impact on global education; current UNESCO statistics put this figure at over 1.5 billion.

The ICEF Monitor Report published on 15 April 2020 highlights the financial impact the pandemic is having on higher education, and if the pandemic continues for a quarter it could have severe short and long-term consequences, including declining student enrollment and a decrease in the collection of tuition fees.

The economic impact of the current crisis is quite significant. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) estimates that COVID-19 may cause the global economy to shrink by nearly 1% by the end of 2020, while the International Labour Organization (ILO) projects an increase in global unemployment of between 5.3 million and 24.7 million, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) projects a 13% to 32% global trade decline this year. An economic recession could impact HEIs in many ways, including: a reduction in employment opportunities for graduates who are likely to enter the job market in the next few months; possible delays in students paying fees or an inability to pay tuition at all; the inability of governments to meet commitments to publically funded institutions to the level desired; and most importantly, the changes in student behavior towards the mode and preference of particular degree programs. Although the impact would vary from context to context, the overall impact on higher education is likely to be quite significant.  

An EAIE report based on 805 respondents working in 38 countries in European higher education highlights the concerns regarding the short-term and long-term impacts of the crisis in different areas including crisis response, longer-term planning, partnership management, student mobility, technology management and effective communications processes with relevant stakeholders. The crisis is likely to significantly impact international student mobility in many countries. For example, a recent survey by the Institute of International Education (IIE), which looks at US-China student mobility, concludes that international higher education exchange will likely experience long‐term effects, including decreasing numbers of students both studying abroad as well as inbound students and partnerships with universities in other countries.  This trend could also hit HEIs in emerging economies, which offer attractive cost-effective education options to many students from low-income countries. The current crisis will leave lasting changes to the way that institutions think about and practice education abroad. In the Australian context, KPMG anticipates major changes in HEIs including: a shift from conventional lectures to online education; a focus on cost-reduction; a search of new markets; and greater emphasis on students’ experiences in the education process.

Analyzing the impact of the pandemic on the African higher education sector, which has nearly 2,000 higher education institutions, University World News notes that public funding for colleges and universities could be severely affected due to competing demands from healthcare, business and other sectors. In addition, the challenges in fee-collection and student loan-repayment could further complicate the problem.

A recent article highlights concerns about how decreasing employment and income may affect higher education in India, where unemployment is likely to reach 30% by the end of April 2020. Many graduates already fear that their job offers will be withdrawn, while in the long-term the ability of parents and students to pay school fees will be impacted.  KPMG India reports that nearly 37.5 million students and 1.4 million faculty and staff in India could be affected by the crisis. This may also impact future admission and enrollment for Indian universities as nearly 5 million aspiring college applicants explore enrolling in university under uncertain conditions.     

The anticipated changes could be grouped in five categories: (1) the changes required immediately to deal with issue of continuity of teaching and research; (2) the changes required to maintain the employment of students already placed or likely to be placed in jobs in the next few months; (3) the long-term changes caused by the sudden shift in process, behavior and new resource development; (4) the changes in the working model of HEIs in terms of the ability of parents and students to afford higher education; and (5) the macro-level changes needed for regulating and facilitating quality higher education in changing times.

Innovative cross-border and cross-sectoral collaboration models are needed to face the challenges posed by the current crisis which continues to evolve. For example; The Global Education Coalition by UNESCO aims to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during the current educational disruption. More such partnerships at national and international levels are needed to promote open, flexible and relevant learning systems during times of crises. While the UN System and other international agencies could contribute as an aggregator, the world needs the active leadership of governments to finance higher education and the participation of the private sector to employ college graduates.   

Ensuring adequate responses to the emerging challenges requires HEIs to focus on quality, relevance and agility. To achieve this, the isolated players and independently operating institutions need to unlearn the conventional way of curriculum planning and delivery. A McKinsey analysis suggests a more coordinated and collaborative system through the proposed ‘Integrated Nerve Centre.”  It is interesting to note that the desired collaboration would not be limited to administrators, faculty, students, and employers, but would require the participation of financial service providers, governments and other international bodies.

There are some positive aspects to these challenges. A recent Times Higher Education article based on a comparison of the impact of previous recessions on unemployment and university enrollment in Britain presents a future scenario in which enrollment in higher education increases due to emerging post-recession opportunities. It’s important to note, however, that the current crisis in not like previous economic downturns due to its’ nature as well the availability of alternative, technology-based education models at relatively lower cost. The current crisis could lead to different scenarios for three reasons: (1) as human health is at risk, many of the conventional sectors/industries may experience significant changes in consumer behavior with changes in the nature and quantity of demands; (2) students may be reluctant to return to traditional models of education after experiencing alternative education models at lower cost; and (3) changes in job markets may lead people to use their transferable skills to enter a different industry (for example aviation and hospitality executives may apply for jobs in sectors that utilize similar knowledge, skills and attitudes). Based on these possibilities we could see changes in both the curriculum and delivery models in higher education.

In order to weather the current crisis HEIs need to act quickly, think innovatively and work collaboratively to mitigate the impacts of this challenge. This requires a commitment to change and a shift in the mindset of how we plan and deliver education to use novel solutions for greater impact. HEIs can use this as an opportunity for ‘Academic Impact’ through collaboration as ‘one world, one family (Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam)’ in this time of adversity.

Shiv K. Tripathi, Executive Director at Chandigarh University, India and Wolfgang C. Amann, Professor of Strategy and Academic Programme Director at HEC Paris, Qatar, contributed this article.