UNESCO organizes a webinar revealing the 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 from December 2020 to February 2021.

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 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.

Following the survey conclusion, UNESCO organized a webinar on 30 June 2021 to highlight key findings and provide higher education stakeholders, including university representatives, policymakers, students and teachers with the opportunity to share their perspective and experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opening the event, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education affirmed that “Today’s webinar has an important significance as it has the ability to bring together all the stakeholders to start the arduous process of redefining higher education, one that is more inclusive, for a world that contributes to a global common good.”

UNESCO programme specialist Akemi Yonemura presented the key findings of the survey report, highlighting the widening inequities accelerated by the pandemic, but also good practices from several countries, which were able to transform challenges into opportunities through innovation, strong government support, and international cooperation.

Among the 10 Member States represented, there was a clear indication from all that the pandemic dramatically shifted higher education systems to virtual mode. Representatives raised the need for better infrastructures, easier access to the internet and digital devices, along with a shift to blended learning methods. Afghanistan’s representative, Mr. Barai Mobarez summed up the issues by stating that “Our main challenges are the lack of infrastructures, low level of IT skills among teachers and students and low access to digital devices”.

Panellists also expressed concern at the reduction in student enrolment that carries impact on university operations and especially in the number of staff employed. Kenya representative, Dr. Frank Sawanga Ndakala, explained that while “there was an increase of 3.9% in enrolment of the students in the public sector, we also saw a decrease of 11.5% in the private sector, leading to a concern for universities that are not receiving enough revenues to pay for their staff.” Jamaican representative, Dr Dameon Black, concurred with this analysis, commenting that “the impact on staff’s employment was severe on private institutions given their dependence on student tuition.”

The Solomon Islands National University representative, Dr Jack Maebuta provided a glimpse of the long term impact noting that “the indirect cost is largely related to the loss of revenue from students who can’t attend classes. As a result, the university did not give any scholarship to students in 2021.”

University and student representatives drew attention to the psychological toll of the pandemic, citing isolation and a lack of interaction with teachers and other students that hindered their experience, morale and motivation to keep studying. UNRWA representative,

Mr. Moritz Bilagher also noted that “The increase in financial pressure on families leads to more dropouts” and that “we have noticed a decrease in the percentage of graduates employed compared to the previous years.” The concern for finding a job after graduation was shared by Ms. Hanwen Zhou, a former intern at UNESCO: “As a fresh graduate, getting a job is the toughest concern. Obviously, there is a significant reduction in job opportunities [due to the pandemic], specifically for international students.”

At the same time, several representatives pointed to positive aspects. T Malaysia’s representative, Dr. Ghazali Kamila noted that “All public universities were very cohesive in how they shared resources, expertise and good practices. For example, resource centers offered training sessions to all academic staff to train them on how to deliver online teaching.” Canadian representative, Ms. Candice Ennis Williams remarked that “one of our first steps in 2020 was to develop financial support to students. Most provinces offered technology equipment to the students, with computers, tablets, purchase etc.” Belgium representative, Ms Marie-Anne Persoons also agreed that international solidarity, especially for mobility was essential going forward and expressed her country’s interest in ratifying the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications.

Closing the event, Ms. Katsuno-Hayashikawa, Director of Education2030 at UNESCO, encouraged all countries and universities to utilize these challenging times to reshape higher education for the better: “This crisis is offering a better moment to start implementing more sustainable curriculum guided by the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, working on reducing inequalities and offering the equal opportunity to access tertiary education to all, promoting true lifelong learning.”

Peter J Wells, Chief of Higher Education at UNESCO finally commented that the webinar had been “a very remarkable but also moving session of stories and experiences and humbling for us from UNESCO.”

Based on the result of the first survey and the experiences and further questions raised in this event, UNESCO will conduct a second survey regarding higher education to gather more data on the impact of the pandemic on higher education systems and continue supporting its Member States to reshape higher education systems, which will contribute to the World Higher Education Conference that will take place next May in Barcelona, Spain.


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