This week's blog focuses on the effects of COVID-19 on Universities generally; their responses and lessons learned in building a better future. It is a prelude to a discussion on Universities in the Caribbean subregion that have been greatly affected by the global economic picture with differential outcomes. These include slow economic recovery, increasing public debt burdens, negative effects on emerging markets and increasing bankruptcies. Placing emphasis on digital platforms to redirect social measures and reduce poverty shocks are particularly relevant for the welfare of the Universities and their communities. The case for a better future revolves around viewing higher education as an investment in human capital.
Approximately a year ago, while preparing for my Inaugural address as Chancellor of the University of Guyana, I was extremely excited by the Report on the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in November 2019. The novelty of the Global Convention is that it is designed to facilitate academic mobility between regions and predicated on the assumption that students studying outside their home country will be increased from 4 million to an estimated 8 million by 2020-2021 academic year. This seemed such an opportunity to be grasped in expanding the geography of learning for students not only at UG but also in the CARICOM Community and the wider Caribbean. The Coronavirus pandemic has upended the roll out of the grand design of the Global Convention. While its concept remains, the narrative has drastically shifted. University leaders around the world now have to take decisions based on rapidly changing variables that make meaningful predictions difficult.
Pivoting in two Directions
During this week two virtual consultations have placed the challenges to the Global Convention in context. First, the London School of Economics (LSE), as part of its 125 year celebration hosted a curtain raiser of the 2020 IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in which Kristalina Georgieva IMF Managing Director highlighted policy priorities in the difficult climb faced by the global economy. It was determined to be long, uneven, uncertain and prone to setbacks Overcoming the Crisis and Building a More Resilient Economy .
The second, a panel sponsored by the International Association of Universities on which a follow up blog will be grounded focused on the principles of leadership that help mitigate the present challenges and shape the future of universities. The panelists including Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of UWI, focused on the financial, systemic and educational ramifications of the pandemic and shared their experiences and decision-making process during these times.
Sample of University Responses
Having to write recommendations for students' applications to graduate programmes in Europe and the USA brought me in direct contact with the reality that the coronavirus pandemic has forced virtually every country on Earth to ration physical social contact. The Times Higher Educational Supplement (September 2020) provides a sample of responses of higher educational institutions. Most striking is its reference to registrations at Universities across European being actually more than 7 per cent up on last year. Besides, universities in many jurisdictions have had to comply with national regulations. For example, Universities-UK, a national collective is coordinating responses to the challenges facing universities in the UK. These challenges include student and staff health and welfare, admission issues, and longer term impact. In Germany, its academic year was delayed by a month, to the beginning of November. Universities in that country have generally agreed to keep an estimated 90 per cent of classes online. In the Netherlands which has established an intelligent (sector focused) rather than mandatory lockdown, all 14 public universities have agreed on a blended system of course delivery with virtual and limited face to face teaching with operations between 11am- 3pm and 8-10 pm. In both cases, lecturers, who in March, scrambled to switch their courses online, are now being asked to convert some of their teaching back into physically distanced spaces with online fall back at all stages.
Over a third of US colleges and universities fully reopened in August. That this was risky is illustrated by statistics showing that at the beginning of the month, the US had about 55 000 new cases per day and no federal covid-19 control plan or coordinated vision for safely reopening universities. This scenario has played out at universities nationwide. The New York Times Tracking COVID at US Colleges and Universities ( September 25) shows that there have been 130,000 cases in 1,300 higher education institutions
A recent LSE study shows that this current COVID generation is estimated to pay a high price estimated at US$ 1.5 B in missed out education. "They can’t travel and can’t get jobs. Entering job market during pandemic results in scarring income earning capabilities for decades." Under these circumstances, education is the best option. According to the Director of LSE, we owe this COVID-19 generation a huge investment in their education in order to improve their employment chances in the future.
Tuition Fees and The Financial Bottom Line
At the same time there are demands from students worldwide for a reduction of fees in response to the emphasis being placed on online learning. This was dramatized in the US, where many colleges flung open their doors to new students – and their tuition fees, of course – triggering, as predicted, a wave of coronavirus outbreaks, hasty closures and condemnation of perceived recklessness. Yet a federal judge largely dismissed a lawsuit in which a group of Northeastern University students sought refunds of their tuition and other payments after the university, like most colleges in the country, closed its campuses and shifted to remote learning because of the coronavirus.
Still, the experience of the pandemic seems to have confirmed the risks of over-reliance on international fees by some universities Even prior to the pandemic, a scramble for these fees which according to the Times Educational Supplement (September2020) " has not only made UK universities financially vulnerable but also created homogeneous departments, often overly dominated by Chinese students."
Universities-UK has made the case similar to that in most European countries that the costs for online learn have risen enormously. Cloud space, for instance, has to be rented to host video lectures because local networks are unable to handle the massive spike in traffic. The preparation and repurposing of learning facilities as safe spaces have also added to operational arrangements. The British Medical Journal (September 2020) has advocated for provision for expanded consideration on care for students and staff including access to ventilation, updated considerations on food service, contact tracing , recognizing and following up on signs and symptoms of COVID-19 by screening, and testing, coping and support and Direct Service Providers (DSPs).
Conclusions: Lessons for building a Better Future
The hope of that the UNESCO Global Convention on Higher Education will reemerge from the devastation of the coronavirus is being kept alive. But this will depend on how well we learn from the primary lessons that have emerged, including:
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.