The global environment has changed dramatically since COVID-19. The International Labour Organization says that nearly half of the world’s workers are at immediate risk of losing their jobs, so far more than 344,00 lives have been lost, with more than 5.3 million confirmed cases. The global economy is contracting sharply putting millions out of work and the most vulnerable into further poverty.
The tertiary education infrastructure across the globe has been severely tested by the wide-scale disruption caused by this virus. These have been many and varied. Some international students have been left stranded in countries they went to receive tertiary level education because borders closed quickly, and international flights became scarce. Caribbean students studying abroad, in some cases have been severely affected, but their governments have stepped in to help as in the case of medical students from Guyana and Jamaica who are studying in Cuba.
Even when colleges and universities sought to bridge the teaching gap by going fully online, it left a ‘soft underbelly’ of students who did not have the technological and other resources to take advantage of online platforms being used by their various schools. The uncertainties and dangers of the virus also posed psychological difficulties for many students. Others lacked the discipline required to be successful at the online delivery of teaching and learning.
UNESCO has noted that many millions of students are currently unable to attend classes and that the number is growing daily. Higher educational institutions, like other institutions in society, were caught off guard with this situation and are struggling to find the appropriate solutions to respond to emerging problems while maximising the opportunities.
Various analysts, in pointing out these present challenges, have written about the extent to which higher education will be different after COVID-19. For example, some have pointed to the fact the Chinese overseas study market, worth some US% 64. 6 billion, will be uncertain, at least in the immediate future. Not to be underestimated is the importance of the Chinese student market for universities in developed countries with implications for their economies. Students are likely to postpone plans for studying overseas until the COVID situation is played out.
Some tertiary education analysts are projecting a decline in enrollment of between 15-25%. There is the challenge of thinking through the proper time for the resumption of on-campus instruction, the nature of commencement activities, possible reduction in graduation rates, how to make online instruction more effective, how to onboard and orient new students, how much flexibility to use in deciding on entry requirements given that examination bodies have also been severely affected and are themselves making their own adjustments.
Despite these challenges, opportunities abound. There is now a wider role for online learning going forward. The combination of in-person and on-line learning should become a permanent feature of higher education. Students must be given a choice whenever this is possible. They will decide based on their personal circumstances bearing in mind that after the crisis they and their families are likely to have much catching up to, financially and otherwise. Much disruption has occurred. Many, especially the more mature ones, have come to find advantages with the flexibility offered in the online format and have developed a routine as to how to use it while working. Opportunities must be made for this to continue.
Irrespective of format, there is no substitute for an excellent educator. Some have gotten accustomed to the online format and the best must be given opportunities to continue, whether fully online or hybrid. These decisions must be student driven. The opportunities for further education are boundless. A wider role for online learning will mean a require a full analysis of what aspects of educational delivery will be offered in person and what part will be offered online. This will necessitate more opportunities for the continuous training of faculty. This will ensure that they become even more effective with the online format. Educators need additional skills and beliefs in order to teach in an online environment to enable learning.
There are opportunities for more online outreach to prospective students, for flexibility in application deadlines, and more creative approaches for open campus and new student orientations. Secondary school students, in the main, have also been immersed in online learning. More use of teleconferencing will allow for academic conferences to made smaller and delivered in sections.
Higher education institutions are challenged to make summer semesters more creative and engaging to allow students to make up for lost time. The best of in-person and online learning will positively affect student’s ability to get on with their education and to graduate. In fact, guided by their national governments, a reduced number of courses on campus and more online will allow institutions to gradually work themselves back to some form of normalcy.
In thinking through their financial circumstances and the expected downturn in income from student tuition fees, consideration must be given to more flexible payment options for students. The fact is that most schools depend on tuition to complement government contribution as they do not have the luxury of endowments to fall back on.
Flexibility, driven by student needs, underlined by consideration for faculty and staff welfare, will allow tertiary institution to navigate successfully the COVID-19 situation.