COVID-19 tests the resilience of higher education

COVID-19 has delivered a major shock to our societies and has disrupted higher education globally. Having passed through the immediate response stage, it is now time to reflect on how prepared higher education systems were to respond to the crisis, how resilient they are and what lessons we have been learned that can be taken into the future.

A recent Strategic Debate, hosted by the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), addressed this theme with panelists Hilligje van’t Land, secretary-general of the International Association of Universities (IAU); NV Varghese, vice-chancellor of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration and the founding director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education in India; and Francisco Marmolejo, education advisor of the Qatar Foundation and former global higher education coordinator at the World Bank.

Together, they explored the concept of resilience in higher education in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

The panelists’ views confirmed that COVID-19 caught most higher education systems off-guard, resulting in a serious disruption of teaching, learning and research globally.

Van’t Land said: “Among the challenges brought about by COVID-19, we saw a financial crisis, a participation crisis, increasing inequality, but, at the same time, we could also see that universities participated in the design of solutions to the pandemic.”

During this unprecedented time, higher education institutions have had to adapt to what many call the ‘new normal’. The panelists argued that, in the face of the digital divide and access inequality, the ‘new normal’ is different across both countries and systems.

The crisis has revealed the fragilities in our higher education systems, but it has also illuminated numerous opportunities. In the view of the panelists, these are important constituents of resilience. Indeed, very few higher education institutions had pre-existing capacities to launch a crisis response immediately – these capacities needed to be developed.

Higher education institutions had to invest heavily in the development of digital infrastructure, teacher training, student services, and robust IT support.

Higher education institutions incorporated more flexible methods of designing and delivering content which increased access to higher education for many students. Now more learners can benefit from open online learning opportunities. Learners, educators, and researchers are connecting through these platforms more frequently and are finding new ways of interacting.

The tasks for the future:

  • First, innovation is necessary to find new ways of leading higher education institutions through the present situation. In the words of Marmolejo, new higher education leaders should be “bolder and more ambitious, but also aspirational and inspirational”.
  • Second, flexibility is needed in finding new approaches to teaching and learning and creating more flexible pathways for students to pursue learning. Varghese stated: “A bricks and mortar system cannot any longer be the main option of the future.”
  • Lastly, innovation and flexibility can only be achieved if there is a collaboration between higher education institutions. This is necessary to build trust among higher education institutions and to create a dialogue between all the stakeholders to create more resilient higher education systems.

For Van’t Land, it is essential for higher education institutions “to collaborate and exchange at the institutional, national, and international levels, to make sure that our future is shaped together.