How will COVID-19 affect higher education across the world?

The effects that COVID-19 has wreaked upon our society have been rapid, far-reaching and drastic. As I write, one third of the world’s population is now in lockdown. By the time you read this, it could well be more than that. Whilst we’re currently witnessing the impact of the coronavirus on our daily lives, for businesses...

In short

Higher education after the global pandemic


Countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, all of whom have internet penetration rates of 85 – 95%, were amongst the first countries after China that were able to take classes online. A recent article from The Times Higher Education World University Rankings has even noted that Peking University in China has gone above and beyond online classes by offering ‘online trauma counselling, employment advice, thesis supervision and other support services’. Yet with these high levels of internet usage and an established infrastructure for teaching online, the transition in these countries will have been easier to facilitate than most.

Countries with high levels of internet penetration should overcome the issue of connectivity fairly easily, but there are dozens of countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa where less than half of the population have access to the internet. And this isn’t a problem limited to those continents. Italy, for instance, has an internet usage rate of just 61%, which puts it behind the likes of Venezuela (64%), Indonesia (65%) and Lebanon (78%).

Even if all students are able to get on the internet without any issues, it’s not so straightforward to move in-person classes online. The University of Birmingham’s online MBA which was the first online MBA in the world to become AMBA-accredited, is not an online version of their full-time program but one that has been created specifically to be studied online. “This is not a campus-based course that we’ve just put online; we’ve built this from the ground up, taking on board the current online environment and latest technology that we have available” says Ian Myatt, Director of Educational Enterprise.

It means that online courses are designed with distance-learning in mind, taught by lecturers who are accustomed to delivering classes in this format.  Hurriedly shifting degree programs online may be an effective short-term fix to ensure students don’t miss out on scheduled classes, but if not managed correctly then they may result in a negative learning experience for students.

To make sure this doesn’t happen, universities should verify that the courses moved online have been suitably adjusted to be taught in that format, and not simply delivered in the same way as they would be in a lecture hall. These adjustments may include reformatting handouts/lecture slides so that they can be easily read online, rethinking possibilities for class participation and making recordings of lectures easy to access after the class.

Exams & Admissions

The admissions process to higher education institutions has been complicated immeasurably by the COVID-19 outbreak. In the UK, the government has cancelled the entrance exams (A-Levels) to British universities which were due to take place this summer, meaning that students will now be given an estimated grade by their teacher instead. Universities themselves have to decide if the end-of-semester exams will go ahead as planned, be postponed or even take place online, which is the route that Oxford and Cambridge have taken. Evidently the more digitally-enabled schools will suffer the fewest problems during this crisis.

Of course, disruption to undergraduate exams will cause subsequent disruption further up the food chain. In terms of applications to Master’s and MBA programs, universities and business schools have largely suspended campus visits, open days and orientation events, offering instead virtual versions where possible. Some business schools such as Harvard have elected to delay upcoming application rounds for their MBA programs, whilst others have decided to proceed with applications as normal but take interviews, GMAT/GRE and English language tests online instead. INSEAD, on the other hand, are temporarily accepting applications without GMAT/GRE scores until test centers reopen.

Many universities have simply acknowledged that this is a fast-evolving, fluid situation and are not committing to any concrete decisions just yet. And who can blame them? This is an unprecedented crisis, the full effects of which will only become clear in the subsequent days, months and years.

The early signs are that this epidemic could change the higher education landscape as we know it. A nationwide study in the U.S. carried out by the Art & Science Group, and reported in Forbes has indicated the following:

Two-thirds of American students are considering changing their first-choice university to one which is “likely to be less expensive, closer to home, and more familiar to them.”

44% are now more interested in taking an online course instead.

The true effects of #COVID19 on the higher education sector are still unclear, but what is certain is that universities need to take drastic steps to minimise short-term disruption. Where possible, all facets of university of life – applications, interviews, campus tours, classes, exams – must not simply be moved online but actually adapted to suit the new medium. These changes will also provide educational institutions with an improved digital infrastructure, which will help them cope with the possible increased demand for online courses in the future.




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