The impact of COVID-19 is causing unprecedented disruption to higher education everywhere. Within a matter of days or weeks, campuses around the world fell silent as countries went into lockdown in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. Universities were required to develop rapid and creative responses that enabled them to continue to deliver teaching and learning when no staff or students could access a physical campus. An immediate, practical challenge for campus-based universities was to mobilize and assist teachers in designing and implementing alternative assessment arrangements and learning support at scale for specific cohorts that did not depend on face-to-face delivery.

This involved deploying on- and off-site facilities and technologies, and identifying and prioritizing student engagement activities that could be best facilitated by affordable and available software solutions. It also relied heavily on the creativity, empathy and judgement of individual teachers, who were themselves coping with considerable personal stress and uncertainty while also reassuring anxious students and striving to provide equitable, quality learning. This was no small feat for staff in universities offering predominantly campus-based education involving many hands-on and face-to-face dimensions, including group work, labs, tutorials and studio time.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits we gained as a sector from this experience was a more critical and balanced view of the value and role of online learning. We found that while remote learning modes can support achievement, they can never meet the educational needs of all our students, and that face-to-face and blended elements still have a central role to play. The campus experience matters.

It is particularly significant that the pandemic is disproportionally affecting disadvantaged students; it is calling attention to the already persistent educational inequalities seen in many countries and risks exacerbating them. As highlighted in the United Nations Secretary-General’s Policy Brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond, there is, indeed, an urgent need for action by all to ensure that the immediate disruption to education does not turn into a generational catastrophe.

In Aotearoa—New Zealand, from where I write—we also have significant educational disparities. The underlying causes are reasonably well understood, but as a society we have made little progress in closing the educational gap for Māori and Pacific peoples, in particular. During the COVID-19 lockdown, we moved with speed at the University of Auckland to help our most vulnerable students remain engaged in their studies. The response included the provision of devices and internet access, increasing student financial hardship assistance, and a concerted effort by university staff to reach out personally to affected students. While there is no denying that these students faced a particularly challenging time during lockdown, it is heartening to see that their academic performance remained at levels comparable to previous semesters. Interestingly, when surveyed about their learning experience, many of these students were markedly positive about the impact of the University’s assistance. These outcomes indicate that strong, focused efforts to overcome some of the barriers to learning can be successful.

Of course, the factors that explain educational disadvantage are numerous, and the levers available to universities are somewhat limited. The impacts of COVID-19 will be wide-ranging and will continue to be felt for years to come. One of these is the pandemic’s effect on the pipeline of students into university, in the light of reports of final-year school students dropping out of the system under the strain of the crisis. Partnerships across and outside the education sector (for example, between the tertiary and secondary sectors) will be critical in addressing and mitigating the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 on the educational outcomes of our most disadvantaged students.

The Secretary-General’s Policy Brief rightly identifies the need to protect education financing. Declining public funding of higher education was already presenting significant difficulties for universities prior to COVID-19, and there is a real risk that the pandemic will further exacerbate the funding crisis as well as discrepancies of access and performance. We need to remind ourselves that in our current precarious situation, the higher education sector can continue to play a crucial role in countries’ efforts to recover and rebuild for the more sustainable future signalled by the Sustainable Development Goals. It is thus imperative that Governments protect funding for higher education.

 

23 September 2020 

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