COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Education

COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Education

There is nothing good like a crisis to excite ideas about different futures and new beginnings. At the very least, right now, we are told that there will be a ‘new normal’ and no return to the way things were before Covid-19 hit the world. However, even before the pandemic, there were plenty of futurologists, especially in English-speaking nations, declaring a series of cataclysmic scenarios for higher education in which various factors combine to challenge and disrupt traditional academic conventions, business models and working practices in public- and private-sector universities. Some speculate that these transformations may come to threaten the very foundations of higher education, its economic value and its role in society. These scenarios usually feature some combination of the following so-called ‘disruptors’: the transformation of graduate employment; raised student expectations; a technology revolution, including the widespread use of online learning, data analytics and artificial intelligence; expansion and public-financing constraints; policy turbulence and growing global competition, particularly from private for-profit institutions and universities from emerging nations. To this mix, the cutting-edge futurologists now add the accelerating impact of Covid-19.

Futurologists – often management consultants – thought leaders and journalists predict that the future will bring rapid and continuous change, challenge and uncertainty for those who manage and work in universities. In response, these managers and staff will need to fundamentally transform themselves to adapt to these new conditions and demands. In particular, the academic ‘workforce’ of the future will have to be more ‘agile and flexible’, more ‘professionalized’, and subject to greater ‘specialization’. The experts on higher education largely draw on interviews and surveys of university heads, senior policymakers, and key stakeholders, such as business leaders and graduate employers. They rarely seek the views of staff or students working and studying in higher education institutions, let alone consult the existing academic research on developments and trends within higher education systems throughout the world. Nevertheless, this futurology circulates among influential networks and begins to inform current strategy-making within institutions and policy-making at state, national and global levels. So, it should not simply be dismissed as speculative marketing, but rather evaluated as a discourse with influence and material impact on behaviour and decision-making.
There can be two main scenarios in the post-Covid-19 world:
In the virus-contained scenario, the main impact will be on persistence, as students and faculty will struggle to adapt to online coursework. Institutions with limited records of creating a compelling online experience could be hurt if their current students are dissatisfied with their digital offerings and decide to go elsewhere. Students might also delay returning until campus life is back to something close to normal. In terms of equity, lower-income students will suffer disproportionately. They are less likely to have the resources, such as PCs and high-speed internet access, to enable them to succeed in an online learning environment. They will also face the most immediate financial challenges, with many industries laying off employees and on-campus employment mostly ended. In the virus-recurrence and pandemic-escalation scenarios, higher-education institutions could see much less predictable yield rates (the percentage of those admitted who attend) if would-be first-year students decide to take a gap year or attend somewhere closer to home (and less costly) because of the expectation of longer-term financial challenges for their families. International enrollment could be severely hit because of ongoing travel restrictions and fear. Both trends would depress enrollment. Meanwhile, IT infrastructure will need upgrading, including the integration of new learning software and tools to maintain teaching standards, as courses move online.
In the virus-recurrence scenario, the situation would be worse for both tuition and non-tuition revenues. Tuition revenues will dip for many institutions, with reductions in student enrollment, cancellation of study-abroad programs, and increases in attrition, especially for schools with limited online delivery capabilities. Non-tuition revenues will also remain low, with all large events and conferences postponed and sports events cancelled. Fund-raising will also be challenged in the context of a broad economic downturn.
In the pandemic-escalation scenario, all of those pressures will intensify further as the duration of online learning extends. To understand better how the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic could affect the economics of higher education. The remote teaching and learning efforts that all our professors and students are now engaged in do not resemble what we think of as traditional online education. Quality online learning programs are high-input operations, requiring both time to develop and significant investments to run. Many of us are worried that the rapid shift to remote learning will tarnish the reputation of online education.
This does not mean, however, that the Covid-19-necessitated move to universal remote teaching will be all bad for student learning. The biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms. The necessity of teaching and learning with asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard, D2L) and synchronous (Zoom) platforms will yield significant benefits when these methods are layered into face-to-face instruction. We will come back from Covid-19 with a much more widely shared understanding that digital tools are complements, not substitutes, for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning. Residential courses will be better for the practice that professors have received in moving content online, as precious classroom time will be more productively utilized for discussion, debate, and guided practice. Very few colleges and universities were doing absolutely nothing with online education pre-Covid-19. There was wide variation, however, in the degree to which online education was central to an institution’s strategic planning. This will all change after Covid-19. In the future, every president, provost, dean and the trustee will understand that online education is not only a potential source for new revenues but it will also be recognized as core to every plan for institutional resilience and academic continuity.
There is no denying that universities often function as small cities, complete with their civic infrastructure. They are also major drivers of the local and regional economy, directly supporting dozens of professional roles and indirectly supporting hundreds more. That is why a major disruption is particularly complicated for educational institutes and has left many universities scrambling with an uncertain future. While campuses are devoid of students, institutional costs are mounting. Universities around the world are under immense pressure to refund student fees and to continue to pay faculty and staff. Meanwhile, with the admissions cycle just around the corner, universities are increasingly concerned about enrolment yields and net tuition revenue. Student applicants are concerned about financial aid as donations and grants drying up. An expensive expansion in online teaching is progressing at a slower pace than expected, with at- times ambiguous and past-due requirements from education regulators effectively grounding progress. Beyond expensive software licenses, privacy concerns surrounding tools like Zoom, ensuring connectivity, and most importantly transforming instructional methods from the classroom setting to a virtual one are creating unexpected hurdles. At the same time, the education cycle continues with test owners and administrators announcing at-home testing for premier admission exams like the GMAT and GRE. Similar at-home testing has also been launched for language proficiency assessment through IELTS and TOEFL. But these challenges pale in comparison to what lies ahead, many students will choose to defer admissions while others will be at risk of dropping out as scholarships dry up. Already strained university budgets will see a fall in research output and additional functions. On top of it all, the university experience social networking, events and the classroom environment will all be at risk.
To get ahead of the events, educational institutes need to react skilfully and strategically. In addition to essential project management and communications roles, senior leadership must have access to epidemiological expertise. Furthermore, since no two universities are alike in scope or style of operation, a one-size-fits-all approach will go out the window. It needs to be driven home that in times of crisis, “good” now is better than “perfect” later, and temporary measures to address health, safety, teaching and learning processes, and financial and legal aspects may prove more effective than waiting for instructions from centralized leadership. There is no doubt that a formidable foe like the novel coronavirus demands multi-pronged and holistic action from a wide range of actors. Across the world, researchers in healthcare, policy, and technology are using their expertise day in and day out, hoping to crack what has the potential to become an unsolvable puzzle. During this time of crisis, a forward-thinking multi-pronged approach that combines the basics of management and business with entrepreneurship, healthcare, policymaking and technology may prove invaluable for developing countries. In a nation like Pakistan, where more than 60% of the population is under 25 years of age, such an approach will undoubtedly shape a better future in the years to come across all sectors of business, industry and governance. As an increasing number of employers demand educational programmers that closely meet the requirements of the modern global industry, the higher education sector in Pakistan has a unique opportunity to capitalize on.
It is also imperative for universities to implement measures based on equity. Many students may not have the required devices or connectivity to complete online course work. Measures to address potential disruption and threats to completion of programs need to be evaluated and put in place. This can be supported by accepting project-based learning and collaborative training to complete credit hours. Furthermore, simplifying degree requirements can also go a long way in not just facilitating students, but also in preparing universities for future cohorts. Similarly, graduating classes are already reeling under the pressures of an uncertain employment market and require means for effective engagement. At their end, universities can seek out mentored engagement experiences, and online skills development programs instead of traditional course work. Decision-makers also need to strategically utilize and allocate resources in a manner that allows smaller institutes to utilize expertise from larger universities. This may include recording video or audio lectures and utilizing online meeting platforms collaboratively. Finally, beyond their financial concerns, higher education institutes need to make equitable decisions in terms of staff from faculty to janitors and third-party vendors. As Pakistan moves on from its deadliest period of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there exists a genuine opportunity for the higher education sector to turn a new leaf and use this opportunity to move forward towards a sustainable future. Achieving this will require a willingness to think outside traditional boxes and implement innovative, adaptive and proactive measures across the board.

The writer is a PhD Scholar (English Literature).
He can be reached at:

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