New UNESCO global survey reveals impact of COVID-19 on higher education

In the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 education disruptions which affected more than 220 million tertiary-level students around the world, UNESCO conducted a global survey aimed at providing an evidence-based overview of the current situation of the higher education system at national and global levels.

The results provide insights on how some countries were able to transform challenges, brought by the rapid digitalization of education, into opportunities through strong government support and international cooperation.

The survey attempts to assess the varying impact the pandemic had on higher education systems in terms of access, equity and quality of teaching and learning, university operation, national challenges, emerging issues, and strategic responses.

The key findings for the various assessment dimensions are:

Mode of teaching and learning: The major impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning is the increase in online education. The hybrid mode of teaching has become the most popular form.

  • Access: The impact of COVID-19 on enrollment varies by regional and income levels. High income and Europe and North American countries are better able to cope with the disruption due to government funding support and increase in domestic enrollment.
  • International mobility: Mobility took a major hit, affecting international students significantly, but virtual mobility could compensate or even replace physical mobility.
  • University staff: Despite the closure of many universities, the impact of COVID-19 on university staff compared to the previous academic year is limited.
  • Disruption of research and extension activities: COVID-19 caused suspension and cancellation of teaching and research activities globally.
  • Widening inequality: The mixed impact of the pandemic on university finance shed a light on the exacerbation of inequality in higher education. Financial support from the government and external sources are crucial to the survival of HEIs.
  • University operations: The strong impact of the pandemic on HEIs operations caused reduced maintenance and services on campus and campuses closures worldwide.
  • National challenges: Health and adaptation to new modes and models of teaching are the top concerns for students and institutions.
  • Transition from higher education to work: The significant reduction of job opportunities makes the transition from higher education to the labor market more difficult. Employers are also seeking applicants with higher technology skills.
  • National priority: Strategic options for country-specific response are to improve infrastructure and availability of digital devices for online or distance learning as well as support for teachers and more international collaboration in research and policy dialogues.

The global survey was addressed to the 193 UNESCO Member States and 11 Associate Members. Sixty-five countries submitted responses, fifty-seven of which were used for the analysis that informed the report.

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