A Path to an Uncertain Future

A UNESCO report outlines six ways that higher education institutions can successfully move past the pandemic crisis.
A Path to an Uncertain Future

NOW THAT INSTITUTIONS are recovering from the first shock waves caused by COVID-19, many academics are starting to look ahead and ask, “What’s next for higher ed?” In April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO IESALC) released a new report exploring this question. “COVID-19 and Higher Education: Today and Tomorrow” provides academic institutions with at least an initial road map into that uncertain future. Although the report focuses its attention on schools in Latin American and Caribbean countries (LACC), its findings have global application.

The report highlights the unique challenges of the crisis for higher education institutions (HEIs), the largest being the “lack of references to similar crises in the past.” Never before has a crisis forced so many schools to overhaul their programs so quickly—or affected so many students and faculty. UNESCO IESALC estimates that temporary campus closures displaced 98 percent of college students and faculty across LACC countries. That amounts to approximately 23.4 million higher education students and 1.4 million teachers.

The pandemic’s financial impact on HEIs also will be extraordinary. According to the report, as of April, 260,000 students in England had signed a petition asking for partial tuition refunds. And 43 percent of MBA students at the top 20 business schools in South Korea were asking to have at least one-third of their tuition returned. An even greater concern for academic administrators is that the pandemic is likely to lead to a global recession. That means that public HEIs will experience significant cuts in funding and some private HEIs will close altogether, the report’s authors predict.

With student mobility curtailed due to travel bans, HEIs around the world are likely to see significant declines in their international enrollments. LACC institutions typically have very few international students, so will remain largely unaffected in this regard. But elsewhere it will be a different story. The report cites Times Higher Education, which estimates that HEIs in the U.S. will enroll 80,000 fewer Chinese students as a result of the pandemic. That number will drop by 35,000 for HEIs in the U.K., and by 30,000 for those in Australia. “In [these] three major recipient countries, COVID-19 will bring billions of revenue losses,” the report’s authors write. For Australian universities alone, Chinese students normally account for “20 percent of budgetary income.”

While the financial future might be disheartening, HEIs still can “plan [their] way out of the crisis,” if they follow an appropriate strategic framework, the authors argue. The strategic framework they present is based on the following six principles:

Prioritize fair and equal access to higher education for all. Any recovery plan “should be directed by this right,” the report holds.

Leave no student behind. A gap had already long existed between the “haves” and “have-nots” before the crisis. The pandemic has served to widen that gap in ways that HEIs must address.

Review current regulatory frameworks and policies to look for opportunities to support and empower the most vulnerable students.

Create and clearly communicate a clear plan for campus reopening. This step should be taken sooner rather than later, the authors note. All students, faculty, staff, and security personnel should know of new policies and processes that will be required for face-to-face instruction to resume, as well as how they will be expected to work within that new normal.

Rethink approaches to teaching and learning. The post-pandemic return to campus should be seen not just as a challenge to overcome, but as an opportunity to exploit. The report’s authors argue that schools should look for new ways “to redesign the teaching and learning processes … paying special attention to equity and inclusion.”

Coordinate closely with government. HEIs and governmental bodies should work together to design stimulus plans for economic recovery, create national strategies for higher education’s recovery, provide clear-cut regulations that relate to reopening campuses, and engage in a national debate on lessons learned. Keeping in mind that the impacts of COVID-19 are likely to be longterm, academic and government leaders should focus their efforts on promoting continuous educational delivery, equity and support for disadvantaged students, and a willingness to revamp current educational models to “scale up digitization and ubiquitous learning.”

The report outlines the impact of COVID-19 on multiple aspects of higher education, such as the challenges of maintaining continuous course delivery, the maintenance of student health and safety, the redirection of faculty research toward the crisis, and inevitable shifts in areas such as enrollments, administrative schedules, and governance.

“In the current circumstances, where so many variables have yet to be defined, this document must be seen as one in permanent construction,” the authors write. They conclude by noting that “HEIs will have missed a great opportunity if they do not stop to reflect internally, with the participation of students and teachers, about the lessons learned during the crisis about the teaching and learning processes.”