IAU Event Explores How COVID-19 Has Shaped the Future of Higher Education

A virtual side event as part of the UNESCO WHEC2022 Conference was held by the International Association of Universities (IAU) on 12 May, 2022. Following on from the Second IAU Global Survey Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on higher education conducted during 2021, the event brought together leaders from regional and national organisations and associations of universities to reflect on the results from the perspectives of their regions, as well as how the pandemic will shape the future of higher education.

In opening remarks, Hilligje van’t Land (IAU) labelled the pandemic as a transformative moment in history, which has generated many challenges but also brought about new opportunities, such as working together in different ways, or forcing us to rethink how we operate, within this new reality.

Trine Jensen (IAU) presented a number of findings from the survey, covering the key areas of governance, teaching & learning, and research. On the area of governance, impacts on financing (public funding and tuition/academic fees) were presented, with half of the higher education institutions (HEIs) indicating stable levels of income, though less stability was reported in Africa and the Americas when considering public funding. In all regions, domestic student enrolments were stable, however all saw a decrease in international student enrolments.

The survey indicated that 89% of HEIs made use of remote teaching & learning modalities, and whilst there was progress in student access, there were also inequalities seen among regions. The majority of institutions reported an increase in the use of digital tools, however the extent to which disciplines could adapt to remote teaching & learning was highly dependent on the disciplines themselves (those requiring laboratory or physical resources for example). This had an impact on curriculum, with 51% indicating curricula in such disciplines needed to adjust to a more theoretical focus, rather than practical due to restrictions. On the other hand, it was also seen that disciplines which were able to shift remotely with more ease (e.g. humanities), adjusted to using more practical approaches such as the use of case studies, in order to engage students in distance learning mode.

Research priorities and activities were seen to remain rather stable, with health and welfare the only area to see a significant increase. Regional variations were noted however, with Africa seeing more of a diverse situation related to stability in priorities. Two thirds (66%) of respondents noted a delay in research activities, especially in the Americas and Africa, citing travel restrictions as the main factor, limiting the ability to attend conferences and conduct field work. Additional time allocated to teaching and learning was also mentioned as a factor which potentially was detrimental to research. Across each region, research funding was stable for the majority of respondents, however the extent differed widely across regions (70% in Europe vs 45% in Africa). International research collaboration increased particularly in the Americas and Africa (41% and 37% respectively), opening up opportunities to engage differently moving forward.

Reflections and reactions from speakers across different regions shed light on the impacts these areas had on their regions. In the US, Maria Claudia Soler (American Council on Education) noted the key concerns among university presidents throughout the first year of the pandemic included enrolment numbers, mental health, long term stability of institutions, and how to sustain online learning environments. Looking ahead, a hybrid model may continue, with institutions needing to be more creative in their offerings. Speaking about the impacts within the Arab region, Amr Ezzat Salama (Association of Arab Universities) noted that closures drove institutions to adopt technology, and to invest in technical infrastructure to be able to manage the shift online. The experience in the region on the topic of research also mirrored the results presented, in that research activities were delayed due to more time spent on teaching activities. Michael Gaebel (European University Association) provided a perspective from Europe, noting that HEIs in the region have been in a positive situation given they are predominantly publicly funded, and have seen budgets increased. Institutions with good communication structures and participatory processes also fared well. The immediate challenges relate to unplanned investments needed in IT systems, loss of international tuition fees, and funding to accommodate the growing shift to greener and more inclusive approaches for these transformations.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Philip Vaughter (UNU-IAS) noted internationalisation strategies as a key challenge for the region. The pandemic has affected the willingness of students to relocate or participate in international programs, along with the mobility of students and scholars. This generated a lot of uncertainty and eroded trust – moving forward there needs to be a focus on how to rebuild international partnerships and recruitment strategies towards the international sector that HEIs rely on. Within the region, students felt mostly satisfied with the transition to online technology, and with shorter durations of lockdowns, a swifter move to hybrid modalities may have had an influence on how satisfied students were with the teaching and learning aspect. Despite this, there is variability within the region and within different countries in terms of access and digital infrastructure, affecting how inclusive online learning modalities can be.

Within the Latin America region, Roberto Escalante (Union of the Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean), explained that the pandemic made visible the structural differences that determine how education and higher education operates in the region. Most notably it highlighted the digital divide, and the impacts on students from lower income households and women, who had to abandon university education. The outlook in Africa was almost similar to the Arab region, as noted by Olusola Bandele Oyewole (Association of African Universities). Closures caused a reduction in the income levels of HEIs, government support to the sector decreased, and many jobs in the sector were lost. However, the pandemic also meant the governance processes including admission, applications, and examinations are now digitalised – a positive effect which will remain after the pandemic. In addition, more collaboration has taken place in this region, as well as attendance in virtual conferences, and an increase has been seen in Indigenous knowledge and Africa-based research.

The global perspectives from the speakers brought in new points for future reflections which will continue into the WHEC2022 event to be held in Barcelona from 18-20 May, 2022. The survey has spurred multiple follow-up projects which will be conducted by the IAU to dig deeper on the results which will inform how the sector can move forward.