Higher education forever changed in a post-COVID-19 world

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 9, 2021
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Higher education institutions around the world must adapt to many changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. For a start, as a result of lockdowns, most institutions had to quickly ramp up to offer their courses online. Even as traditional face-to-face classes gradually resume, tertiary institutions will find that some form of online learning will become the new normal. Lectures will be optional and asynchronous. Teaching materials will be more interactive and tailored to student needs and backgrounds. There will be fewer "tests" and formal lectures, and more online discussions, quizzes, small group collaboration, multimedia course material, independent/group project work, simulations replacing lab and other experiential skills training.

Institutions will have to invest further in resources to ensure students can engage in online learning and have access to and training in the appropriate technologies. They will also have to be better at having backups so that alternative learning pathways are available when traditional course delivery is disrupted. 

Student services will have to adapt to an online environment where students are able to contact and interact with academic and support staff as well as engage with their peers. Institutions will have to improve their ability to create and nurture online learning communities which offer support and develop a sense of belonging. A special equity challenge will be how – in this online environment – those students who are digitally deprived are to be assisted. As learning becomes lifelong and people live longer and more productive lives, those in the workforce and in older generations will require special support as they un-learn, learn new skills and adapt.

The move to online teaching also means that staffing and infrastructure profiles must change. With fewer lectures and face-to-face tutorials, many universities have cut the number of sessional staff. At the same time, education institutions require more course designers, multimedia personnel and online support specialists. With fewer students attending in-person there is also less focus on facilities and more on digital infrastructure. 

Institutions have also had to invest in training their existing staff to provide them with the knowledge and skills required to teach effectively online. Working conditions are also changing with an increasing number of staff choosing to work from home. A more group-oriented academic culture will also have to be nurtured in which teams of designers, content experts, computer experts, web support, multimedia experts and others work together as they develop, teach and continually improve their course offerings, enhance teaching excellence and achieve better student learning outcomes.

Another result of the pandemic is that government treasuries have incurred significant debt. This is likely to mean a reduction in the capacity of governments to support higher education. At the same time, a predicted decline in student enrolments will lead to pressures to reduce costs and be more innovative. One aspect of this innovation is likely to see both increased mergers and partnerships between higher education institutions and with industry. Another emerging trend is the growth in micro-credentials and the need and advantages in unbundling learning packages in order to facilitate just-in-time delivery and provide education at lower cost and greater efficiency.

For universities with a research mission, COVID-19 has also impacted this sphere of activity: Conferences are increasingly moving online, online networking and collaboration have greatly increased, and academics are developing new research and networking skills. Increasingly, government and industry are becoming more targeted in allocating research funding and demanding greater evidence of "impact" and focus on results. The linkages between the workplace and higher education institutions are also receiving much greater emphasis.  

All of these changes will create major challenges for higher education governance in the coming decade. Governing bodies will have to have in place policies and procedures that protect the quality of learning in order to meet the educational needs of students as well as those of industry and society. Risk management is now at the top of most board agendas as governing bodies prepare for the next pandemic or other crisis, such as cybersecurity breaches. Academic boards in higher education institutions will be challenged, in this new digital environment, about how best to protect academic integrity and maintain a culture of continuous improvement. Student privacy and data protection will also be a concern. Providing a safe workplace is also more important than ever before, leading institutions to deal with issues such as compulsory vaccinations of students and staff, wearing of masks, and so on.

On a wider scale, both higher education and its professions will continue to face forces of disintermediation, with technology taking over the roles of lower order academic and administrative work, flattening hierarchies, disrupting the status quo and tearing down gatekeepers. This will mean that higher education institutions will have to work with industry and accrediting bodies to ensure that professional education adapts and meets the needs of the 21st century information age.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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