Experts and policy-makers have marvelled at the digital transformation of universities during the COVID-19 pandemic – but has access to higher education been one of the victims of the health crisis?
A panel of global figures came together on 24 September to assess the impact of the coronavirus to equity in higher education across the world and to set the scene for World Access to Higher Education Day, or WAHED, which this year takes place on 17 November 2021.
The online discussion, chaired by Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), coincided with the publication of a collection of 17 articles drawn from last year’s WAHED event, with contributions from university leaders, national policy-makers, leaders of global education bodies and others working to make access and success in higher education more equitable in every continent of the world.
While several speakers highlighted that equity challenges during the COVID crisis were not just between lower-income and wealthier countries, but also between different regions and communities, several participants offered reasons to feel positive that access to higher education can move forward even in times of adversity.
Widening access in the Amazon
One of the most ambitious projects mentioned has seen Universidade Estadual de Campinas in the state of São Paulo in south-east Brazil mount a widening access programme that is making a real difference to social inclusion 3,600 kilometres away in the Amazon Rainforest on the country’s border with Colombia.
Former rector Marcelo Knobel, who is a professor of physics at the university, said that like all of Brazil’s public higher education institutions, they don’t charge for tuition.
But, despite having 95,000 applications for 3,400 places, they wanted to make the student population more diverse and socially inclusive.
So they travelled nearly the length of the huge country to recruit indigenous students from 30 different native Brazilian communities in the upper reaches of the Amazon Rainforest.
The campaign was going well, thanks to a strong programme of scholarships, when the pandemic struck.
“You can imagine the challenges when that happened,” Knobel told the discussion.
But thanks to a wide-ranging scholarship programme, which includes housing, food, transportation and, importantly, psychological assistance and other support, they managed to help students to stay at the university during the pandemic and avoid high dropout rates, according to Knobel.
“The key word was ‘flexibility’ during the pandemic as we shifted to remote learning,” said Knobel, who explained that the provision of internet connections and an appeal for old computers and fundraising to buy SIM cards and electronic notebooks made it possible for students to continue studying during the health emergency.
“In total 2,000 scholarships were provided, and the university introduced a wide variety of platforms and training for faculty members. We were determined not to leave one single student behind,” said Knobel.
And to prove the point, at the end of the year in 2020 the university managed to graduate more students than in 2019.
But a less cheerful assessment of the impact of COVID-19 was offered by global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi, who told of the tragedy of a female student in India who was in the middle of her high-stakes end-of-year exam when the internet dropped. “She walked out and took her own life,” said Salmi.
He said: “While it is true that the disruptions have affected both rich and poor countries, the impact on students from vulnerable groups has been much greater than for the average student population in low-income countries.
“In particular, students from under-represented groups, low-income students, girls, members of minority groups, students living in remote areas and special needs students have been hit especially hard, encountering economic hardship and countless connection difficulties and living in emotional distress.”
Salmi said the digital gap challenges meant that many universities in low-income countries struggled to put in place quality distance education programmes.
“Recently the Association of African Universities, which has 700 institutional members, summed up the experience over the past 16 months, saying that very few of their members were able to teach online adequately.
“As a result, millions of students all over the world have suffered learning loss and emotional distress,” said Salmi.
Don’t go back to the old normal
But, despite the difficulties, many universities have managed to re-organise the curriculum and found new pedagogical methods to engage students online.
“And so, when we start emerging from the pandemic, it is time to reimagine the university. Let’s not try to go back to the old normal,” said Salmi.
“Hopefully, the pandemic will accelerate the adoption of flexible pathways and innovative curricular pedagogical and assessment approaches that are more student-centred and make learning more stimulating, engaging and effective.
“Indeed, one of the most positive consequences of the COVID-19 crisis could be to reinvent the teaching and learning process as a lifelong education trajectory that has the primary purpose of sparking curiosity, igniting passion and unleashing genius,” he said.
Internship opportunities hit by the pandemic
Another challenge thrown up by the pandemic was the loss of paid internships for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
This was highlighted by Cathy McLoughlin, head of access service at Dublin City University in Ireland. She said they had embarked on a successful programme to help students lacking the right connections to find high-quality fully paid professional summer work experience to enhance their employability and future career prospects.
“We launched a pilot of the programme in 2019, the year before the pandemic. It was an innovative collaboration between our own service, the educational trust to fundraise for the university and our industry partners,” explained McLoughlin.
But when COVID-19 struck, only 13 of the 50 placements secured survived as companies worried about how they were going to keep hold of their own staff during the pandemic.
But, by offering practical tools to enable virtual internships in 2021, “we ended up placing 88 students with 56 different organisations and some companies who hired students for eight or 12 weeks got so much out of the scheme that they extended the students’ placement,” said McLoughlin.
Dropouts more likely
Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank, said many of the equity challenges students faced at university were exacerbated when they returned home during the pandemic and struggled with unstable electrical infrastructure and broadband in lower-income countries.
“The home environment particularly hit those more likely to drop out,” she said, adding that teenage pregnancies increased among girls returning home, making it unlikely that they would return to higher education.
Dr Courtney Brown, vice president of Strategic Impact at the Lumina Foundation, which aims to increase access to and attainment of post-secondary education and qualifications, said they had set the goal of seeing 60% of Americans having a degree or higher education certificate by 2025. The figure is 52% at the moment.
But even in the United States, many students were left behind, particularly black, Hispanic and Native American students, who are not given an equitable opportunity to access or succeed in post-secondary education.
She also criticised policy-makers for failing to see beyond direct entrants to higher education from school, saying that in the United States 40% of students are over 25 and 35% are financially independent oftheir parents. “These are not kids,” she said.
In a video address, Dr Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), said: “The rapid shift to online teaching laid bare the gaping digital divide, not only between high- and low-income countries, but within countries and institutions themselves.
“While some universities were able to embrace this evolution and use the opportunity to strengthen their distance learning curricula, this rapid transition to online and distance learning highlighted major discrepancies in digital access and digital usage.”
To tackle this, she said that ACU had been leading a partnership in East Africa before the pandemic called PEBL, or Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning, to increase the quality of blended learning and so far had trained 170 academics in the skills needed to adapt courses effectively for online learning.