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Universities Post COVID-19: Quo Vadis?

Universities Post COVID-19
Universities Post COVID-19

While many universities used technology as a stopgap measure to continue the delivery of education during the pandemic, few are reassessing what long-term measures are necessary to make their institutions more resilient in the face of future crises (or the recurrence of the current one). These decisions supported and sometimes spearheaded by governments, will determine which institutions will flourish and graduate 21st-century ready citizens, and which will slowly wither to obsoletion.

Universities have always been thought of as a physical place.  In many countries around the world, “acquiring higher education” and “going to college” are two terms often used interchangeably, although it is important to note the difference.  Higher education entails acquiring a body of knowledge, intellectual frameworks, and cognitive flexibility to enable better and wiser decision-making.  A college experience often comprises life on campus, extracurricular activities, and lifelong friendships.  While both elements are essential for the development of young adults and the formation of productive citizens, delineating the two experiences is important. Now more than ever, universities and colleges are faced with decisions on where to invest their resources.  Traditionally, especially in the US, colleges spend less than a third of their total costs on instruction, racking up the bulk of the bill for real-estate, food, and other student services. 

With COVID-19 making it impossible for many students to physically go to college, the higher education experience was stripped down to the academic part alone which was delivered virtually.  The “academic experience” vs. “college experience” dichotomy blurred. Indeed, the “college experience” morphed into a “digital experience” which exposed how poorly learning at universities takes place. The students, as the consumers of that learning, and their parents have rightly been up in arms about what was exposed as an unacceptable learning paradigm.

With many universities facing serious financial decisions for this and following academic years, their long-term viability will depend on what choices they make now.

 

Real estate or digital infrastructure

In the United States, as an example, the American Council on Education has predicted a 15% drop in enrollment for the nextacademic year and a 25% drop in international students resulting in $23 billion in lost revenue. Already hit by decreasing enrollment figures pre-crisis, and with a looming recession (or worse), universities and colleges are facing tough financial decisions, forcing them to make choices between spruced up campuses to attract students, and investing in digital infrastructure (connectivity or devices) to level the playing field between their students, for when (not if) another crisis interrupts in-person learning. Neither, unfortunately, addresses the core issue of how the learning itself is delivered (be it offline or on).

Whereas it may be easier to attract funds from philanthropists willing to put their name on a building rather than on a few cables of a network, investing in a strong digital infrastructure, including devices for students is crucial to ensure universities play the role of the equalizer rather than exacerbate the existing digital divide.  Equally important is for universities to galvanize their local governments into investing in connectivity, reaching students in more remote or rural areas who otherwise were excluded from higher education. At the same time, a smart investment in digital infrastructure will incorporate a more central problem solution.

 

To upgrade software or update curricula

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down many academic institutions around the world, many universities were impressively swift in moving their classes online in a matter of days. While that ensured continuity, it was a missed opportunity to re-evaluate what students were learning at university.  Never was it more obvious that the skills they needed to survive and flourish in a volatile and unpredictable world were skills such as adaptability, resilience, and wise decision-making. While many universities tout that these are indeed skills that they teach, when one digs deeper it is clear that these skills are not an intentional part of the curriculum but are hoped to be picked up while students are learning subject matter knowledge such as computing, biology or accounting.

Many universities will continue teaching what they have for centuries.  A few, however, will not waste this crisis and will take a hard look at their curricula, redesigning them to ensure they are graduating students not just ready for 21st-century jobs, but rather a 21st-century world. Universities must ensure, and governments must demand, that they have robust delivery platforms, fit for purpose, designed with student engagement and learning in mind.

 

To decrease the number of faculty or reform pedagogy

With belt-tightening, driven by lower enrollment rates, being unavoidable, universities will look at different ways to cut costs. Faculty -especially part-time and adjunct- will not escape this exercise.  While this may be unavoidable, universities must now act to reform their pedagogy.  Lectures, while a time and cost-efficient way to teach, are known to be a very ineffective way to learn. While remaining cost-conscious, universities must change their teaching pedagogy to achieve their stated objectives, namely, graduating knowledgeable and productive members of society.  To do this, universities must rely on the science of learning and the technology that supports it to ensure learning objectives are met and students are fairly assessed.  Without such an investment, a university degree’s value will continue to be diluted, as its holders will show up in workplaces they are unequipped to add value to.

It may be obvious which of these are the right decisions, but implementing them is a difficult and lengthy endeavour which will take courageous and visionary leadership.  Never have we needed leaders, in government and in academia, who can make wise decisions in order to save some of the most important institutions of society.