Covid-19 — A wakeup call for higher education

The pandemic can be a chance for varsities to turn a new leaf, provided they react skilfully and strategically.
Published May 3, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted lives and institutions across the world. From global disruptions in production to supply chains to a new era of work and study from home, our lives are shifting towards a new unknown.

The education sector is no different, having been one of the most severely impacted with schools and universities around the world shutting their doors in line with social distancing as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The challenges

From cancelling classes and exams to emptying dorms to research stuck in limbo, higher education institutes around the world are facing increasing uncertainty.

There is no denying that universities often function as small cities, complete with their own 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 Indicator and TOEFL iBT.

But these challenges pale in comparison to what lies ahead: many students will choose to defer admissions while others will be at a 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.

These are just some of the challenges the current crisis has brought about, while also highlighting stark disparities in institutional arrangements, policies, and practices.

The way forward

In order to get ahead of the events, educational institutes need to react skilfully and strategically. In addition to essential project management and communications roles, it is imperative for senior leadership to have access to epidemiological expertise.

Furthermore, since no two universities are alike in scope or style 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 centralised 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 per cent 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 demands educational programmes that closely meet the requirements of the modern global industry, the higher education sector in Pakistan has a unique opportunity to capitalise 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 coursework. Measures to address potential disruption and threats to completion of programmes 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 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 programmes in lieu of traditional coursework.

Decision-makers also need to strategically utilise and allocate resources in a manner that allows smaller institutes to utilise expertise from larger universities. This may include recording video or audio lectures and utilising online meeting platforms collaboratively.

Finally, beyond their own 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 day yet 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.