Readying for the Future: COVID-19, Higher Ed, and Fairness
Work and Learning

Readying for the Future: COVID-19, Higher Ed, and Fairness

An Unprecedented Challenge

As country after country decrees partial or total lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of universities and colleges closing and switching to e-learning has soared. However, few of these institutions are well prepared for this sudden, disruptive move. A lot of scrambling and improvisation are occurring as administrators, instructors, and students struggle to implement broad-based online learning. The scale of the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented in the lives of nearly everyone involved.

As of April 9, more than 1.5 million people had been infected worldwide – more than 150 times the number diagnosed with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) during that epidemic nearly 20 years ago. SARS emerged in China in November 2002. Within months, it had spread to 29 countries or territories in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. By the time the global outbreak was contained, the SARS virus had affected 8,096 people worldwide, killing 774.

During SARS’ peak, schools and universities in the three most affected areas of Asia – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – were closed from one to several months. To compensate for these closures, some universities kept their students engaged by establishing or increasing their online presence. This required effective learning-management systems, videoconference facilities, and instructors experienced with e-learning.

Short-Term Effects

This time around, the rest of the world watched for nearly two months as China and a few East Asian countries and territories went into lockdown. Despite repeated warnings from the leader of the World Health Organization, few countries prepared for a possible pandemic. When it became clear COVID-19 was spreading rapidly on a global scale, governments suddenly – finally – showed alarm and began shutting down businesses, schools, and universities. Within a few weeks, about 20,000 higher education institutions had ceased normal operation and sent 200 million students home, with many switching to online classes after only a few days of preparation.

While these campus closures will likely help prevent the spread of the virus within higher education institutions, they have clearly forced colleges and universities to operate in unfamiliar ways and spend significant sums to shift their operations online. Higher education institutions all over the world have suspended international travel and exchange programs and put most research activities on hold. Many are struggling with difficult decisions about how to assess student learning, whether to postpone or cancel final exams, and how to recruit students for the next academic year – especially in countries where national end-of-high school exams have been scratched.

Nor has the move to online education been universally embraced. Argentina’s flagship university, Universidad de Buenos Aires, decided to postpone classes and rearrange the academic calendar rather than switch to online classes, deciding that only in-person courses can guarantee quality. Along the same lines, the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe announced that it would remain closed until further notice. The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education suspended online education together with on-campus activities.

Students are also resisting the digital transition. In Tunisia, the main student union – students in other countries have a stronger say in their educations than do U.S. students – denounced the government’s decision to adopt online education during the COVID-19 crisis. The union labeled the move a discriminatory measure and called for a boycott of online platforms. Similarly, in Chile, students at the country’s main public institution, the University de Chile, and at the private Universidad San Sebastian have initiated online strikes. In the United Kingdom, more than 200,000 students have signed a petition demanding refunds of their tuition payments, essentially claiming that online instruction isn’t what they paid for.

Fairness Dimensions

While the disruptions caused by the pandemic affect both rich and poor countries and upend the lives of every societal group, students from vulnerable groups are hit especially hard. In wealthy societies such as the United States, where most residence halls were shut down – often abruptly, many students from low-income families faced major difficulties. They had problems finding off-campus housing on short notice, lost access to campus-based health care, struggled to pay unexpected living expenses, and felt unprepared for a sudden shift to online studies. In this context, community college students – who are more likely to be people of color, older, have lower family incomes, and care for dependents – are much more vulnerable than those attending four-year institutions. These challenges could lead to large numbers of dropouts by the end of the academic year and far fewer students enrolled in the fall. International students stranded far from home also face economic and emotional hardships.

In poorer countries, students from disadvantaged groups face even greater difficulty. In developing countries with limited internet access and low broadband capacity, opportunities for online learning are likely to be drastically constrained, especially in rural areas. Many students from low-income households – sometimes even faculty members – lack laptops or tablet computers. In addition to digital-divide challenges, colleges and universities in poor nations will likely struggle to rapidly launch quality distance learning programs. Many lack experienced instructional designers, sufficient educational resources, an adequate grasp of the specifics and nuances of online education, and strong institutional capacity to deliver it. The African University Association already has signaled that, among the 700 universities operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, very few are well prepared and sufficiently equipped to deliver their programs online.

In addition, universities in the developing world will need to arrange for alternative learning assessments and exams, which in turn will likely disrupt preparations for next year’s admissions. Students from disadvantaged groups, who often have less access to relevant information, are likely to be affected more by these developments.

Governments Stepping In

It is difficult, at this early stage of the pandemic, to have a comprehensive view of national programs adopted by governments to support affected colleges and universities. Initial indications show the following types of measures are needed at the national level: 1) financial stimulus packages and student loan moratoria, 2) flexibility in quality assurance requirements, and 3) capacity-building initiatives to ease the transition to online learning.

A few countries – Australia, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States for instance – already have approved economic rescue packages that include support for higher education. This will help public colleges and universities weather the crisis by protecting the employment of most administrative and academic staff, boosting student welfare, and helping to pay for the technology that can enable a rapid transition to online education. Also, the Canadian and U.S. governments called for a halt to all student loan repayments for the next six months. This maneuver will provide welcome relief to unemployed graduates and those with limited incomes. Many governments also are providing universities with targeted research funding to help identify effective medicines to treat COVID-19 patients and to develop a vaccine. The Nordic countries are funding research in the social sciences to study and mitigate the social consequences of the pandemic.

The second type of national-level interventions needed are those that allow for greater flexibility in the application of quality assurance criteria. Some examples: Suspending deadlines for accreditation and program registration processes, postponing accreditation visits – or switching to “virtual visits” – because of university closures or travel restrictions, and lifting requirements concerning online education. Indeed, many countries have strict regulations regarding online education. A few even impose additional constraints reflecting a negative perception of distance learning. When Peru’s current higher education law was passed in 2014, for example, it specifically disqualified professors who had obtained their doctoral degrees through online education from becoming faculty deans.

By contrast, oversight bodies in many countries are now relaxing their quality assurance criteria to support the rapid transition to online education. Some have issued recommendations to guide colleges and universities, but the general trend has been to issue blanket approvals of the new approaches and delegate responsibility for establishing quality online programs to the higher education institutions themselves. The governors of several U.S. states – Maine’s Janet Mills among the first – have issued executive orders to release funds without adhering to the usual review requirements as part of an effort to encourage online training of health specialists and other workers deemed essential during the pandemic.

The third type of interventions needed involve capacity building to deliver online education – steps that complement the flexible decision-making described earlier. The government of Ghana, notably, has taken the lead in organizing training activities to support universities in their move to online education, in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Open University.

Countries also must strengthen broadband capacity to facilitate internet access for all students. This can be done by providing subsidized internet packages for university students and free connections to national research networks for all universities. In poorer countries, there is a great need, in addition, for reinforcing campus network infrastructure. These interventions can have positive effects, but only if governments stop enforcing internet shutdowns and censorship, a growing practice to muzzle political dissent. Governments must also guarantee continuity in power supplies, another major challenge faced by the higher education sector in several countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Institutional Policies

The most urgent task for many colleges and universities has been to alleviate the economic hardships experienced by students from low-income families. To reduce the digital divide between rich and poor students, some institutions have donated or loaned out devices to students and offered them internet bundles to provide access to online resources. Others have been able to provide emergency financial assistance and help students find alternate housing, including host homes.

To ease the transition to online education, one priority has been to offer crash courses – to academics and students alike – in how to use digital platforms and how to apply effective techniques for online learning. Institutions with fully functional teaching and learning services have found themselves better prepared to support their entire academic community in this transition. Colleges and universities should also look for opportunities to reach out to less-prepared institutions in their orbit and create collaborative platforms for sharing what they learn.

Based on reports from some colleges and universities struggling with the sudden shift to online education, three considerations are urgently important for institutions engaged in this transition. First, they must align learning-assessment procedures and criteria with the new online curricular and pedagogical approaches. Several colleges and universities already have moved to a pass/fail approach, eliminating grades for the rest of this academic year. Designing online assessment methods to fit these emerging modes of teaching and learning will take significant effort, but it will help to assure the quality of learning and validity of final assessments.

Second, institutions must establish, increase, or strengthen academic and psychological supports for today’s students. This effort will become ever more crucial as growing numbers of students struggle to adjust to new teaching and learning approaches – not to mention their fears and concerns about the pandemic. Careful reliance on data and predictive analytics can help support staff identify struggling students early on and can also help pinpoint the areas in which these students might require extra support.

Third, all higher education institutions must factor this crisis into their strategic planning, undertaking thorough risk assessments and mitigation processes to anticipate the medium- and long-term consequences of the pandemic – including the expected economic recession. For higher education institutions in poorer countries, the COVID-19 crisis is a moment to activate a few deep partnerships with universities in other countries that are willing to share their resources and experience during this emergency, especially in the areas of digital education and collaborative online research.  Partnerships among universities and other actors also can be rewarding, notably in the area of e-learning. In Africa, many universities could benefit from closer linkages with providers of online education in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tunisia, widely recognized as leaders in this domain on the African continent.

Vultures and Angels: Support from Other Actors

The abrupt, broad-based transition to online education provoked by the pandemic has been a boon for education technology companies, a few of which have shamelessly taken advantage of the crisis to boost their prices or dump flawed products on the market. Fortunately, these companies appear to be a small minority. Many firms, from the education sector and beyond, have shown boundless generosity in support of the thousands of institutions and millions of students left stranded by the pandemic. Academics and students all over the world now have access to free courses in many languages. They can use digital platforms for virtual meetings and videoconferences. They can benefit from free, online tutoring programs. And they can use virtual labs for simulations and experiments. Some telecom companies have offered free or highly subsidized internet packages to students and academics and have exempted sites that contain open educational resources from data charges.

In all countries, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the National and Regional Research and Education Networks have an important role to play in giving colleges and universities access to fast internet and collaborative networks. This follows the tradition of the Network Startup Resource Center, started in 1992 with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which has helped establish such networks in most parts of the world.

Since the beginning of the crisis, companies and philanthropists in many countries have donated money, computers, and tablets to help students adjust to new online learning approaches. In South Africa, a generous donor has just cleared the debts of 300 students at Walter Sisulu University who are expected to graduate this academic year.

Conclusion: The Likely Longer-Term Impact

Awed by their potentially disruptive character, The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOCs,” referring to the explosion of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses and the growing perception that they could challenge traditional universities or even threaten their very existence. While this prediction proved overblown, one may wonder whether the rapid transition to online learning brought about by the COVID-19 crisis will ultimately transform colleges and universities into digital institutions. In any event, the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to bring about substantial changes in the way higher education institutions operate – in both the short and long term.

The resilience of modern universities has never have been tested as thoroughly as during the current crisis, but not all institutions are being affected in the same ways. The world’s top universities are unlikely to suffer adverse long-term consequences. As predicted by Phillip Altbach and Hans De Wit in a recent article, “… research universities and top-quality institutions that are globally and nationally recognized and have stable income streams, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and elite American private liberal arts colleges and similar institutions worldwide, will recover more rapidly and emerge relatively unscathed from the crisis.”

But for most higher education institutions, especially the private ones that are fully dependent on tuition fees, financial survival will be a serious challenge during the deep recession many economists predict. It’s realistic to expect many private colleges and universities to close their doors for good. Millions of students with limited resources could drop out of higher education altogether, or at least shift to more affordable public institutions. Colleges and universities with high proportions of foreign students also will be vulnerable to fluctuations in the demand.

Institutions would be well advised not to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis whose effects will disappear in a few months. Most colleges and universities failed to heed the lessons of the SARS epidemic. Hopefully, this crisis will serve as a wake-up call to reassess the vulnerabilities of the higher education sector and the challenges of living in a global and interdependent world. If anything, it has shown the importance of contingency planning and risk management, the benefits of supporting innovative delivery methods, and the need for flexibility in learning assessment and admissions requirements.

Will the COVID-19 crisis be remembered as a black-swan event that truly transformed higher education? It’s impossible to predict. At the very least, the pandemic represents an ideal opportunity to experiment with novel ways of organizing and delivering the curriculum. Will universities embrace the potential of online education in a more systematic way? Will this crisis push colleges and universities to broadly adopt innovative approaches that have so far been embraced by only a handful of institutions and audacious educators? Will it herald the disappearance of high-stake exams, to be replaced with next-generation assessment methods and tools? To paraphrase the title of a remarkable book on curricular and teaching innovation, one of the most positive consequences of the COVID-19 crisis could be to transform the teaching and learning process with the purpose of “sparking curiosity, igniting passion, and unleashing genius.”

Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that achieving fairness in higher learning for racial and ethnic minorities and those from low-income families remains one of the biggest challenges. These students are likely to suffer most because of the COVID-19 crisis. The next six months will be a critical test of the capacity of the international community, national governments, and higher education institutions to act swiftly and effectively in order to avoid a growing gap between rich and poor countries, between well-endowed and resource-limited institutions, and among the students themselves. In a time of growing distrust of expertise, it will be critical to implement consensus-based solutions that transcend ideologies and reflect available evidence. It will be equally important to avoid choices that reinforce or deepen existing racial, ethnic, and income disparities. Instead, we must search together for solutions that create opportunity for all, especially people who have faced barriers to the economic success and social mobility that higher learning can bring.


Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president for strategic impact at Lumina Foundation.
Jamil Salmi, Ph.D., is an expert in global higher education who formerly served as the
World Bank’s tertiary education coordinator.

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