How Are Universities Adapting to the New World?

Future of learning

For decades, higher education institutions, particularly in the West, have flourished despite recessions, market crashes, and stagnating economies. With new students clamouring to come in every year, and international students willing to pay exorbitant prices to gain exposure, experience, and opportunities at university, higher education institutions have been relatively unaffected by fluctuating prices and markets. However, the pandemic has brought a sudden stop to this trend. Higher education faces disruptions like restrictions on campus, healthcare guidelines, and social distancing measures. It is common knowledge that universities have swiftly made the shift to online instruction. However, there is more to universities’ adaptive strategies than just online teaching.

Short Term Impact

The switch to online teaching and remote learning has meant that most universities have adopted a ‘hybrid model’ – with smaller classes in person (and with an online alternative), and larger classes being delivered digitally. Considering safety issues and travel restrictions, it is estimated that almost 75% of higher education students around the world will be unable to physically attend university. For those who do attend in person, universities will have to ensure strict implementation of social distancing measures. This will likely mean spaces like bars and dining halls will remain closed, and libraries and study spaces will have a significantly reduced capacity.

Economic Issues

Apart from a loss of revenue for the Spring Quarter, with almost all education being delivered online from April-June 2020, educational institutions face further loss of revenue due to cancelled summer programmes, fall in student application rates and increase in deferrals, grants and graduate funding by alumni dwindling as funding moves away from universities, and non-payment for accommodation due to students studying on campus.

What does this mean for cost projection? On one hand, costs could go up as universities are faced to invest in switching to remote delivery – high quality audio-visual equipment will be required for professors, as well as increased spending on online resources. However, campus being closed could reduce operating costs (electricity, non–academic staff, food etc). Universities which offer the hybrid model – and thus give students a choice on whether to return  are likely to be the worst hit: forced to spend money running campus as usual, while also investing in resources for remote delivery.

When it comes to fees and other costs, elite universities likely to be able to rely on brand name/prestige to keep prices high: Harvard, for example, is charging same tuition for online classes. However, universities with a less skewed demand-supply ratio may struggle: many students are uncomfortable paying high amounts for online learning, making demand more elastic. Thus, many universities may be forced to reduce tuition fees in order to ensure intake of students.

Student Attitudes

The shift to online learning has led broadly to the realisation that university is not simply about classes – it is also about on-campus opportunities like clubs, societies, internships, and career fairs. This has led to the claim that charging full tuition is unjustified, since online learning replicates only one aspect of university life. Many students are  also unhappy with the idea of a ‘socially-distanced’ campus life: believing that there isn’t much point to being on campus if one can’t meet people as usual, utilise study spaces and use resources as one ordinarily would. On the flip-side, many students do not feel they can learn properly at home – most are thrust with extra responsibility, and often do not have their own personal space to study or attend class. Further, many face accessibility issues with poor internet or data connection.

What then are the ways to make Higher Education work in the time of COVID?

To begin with, it is not enough for universities to simply teach online – they must ensure that students get the requisite quality of education. The main challenges of online instruction include – poor connectivity, lack of a study space at home, lack of access to resources, and lack of non-academic activities.

Some proposed solutions are to offer students grants or reimburse them for internet costs, while using alternative means (television channels or radio) for teaching in places without coverage (such as rural India). Flexibility is another crucial aspect: universities should look to record and post some classes instead of making them purely live to mitigate temporary internet connectivity issues or busy home lives so students can work around chores and so on. Universities must also make concentrated efforts to invest in online resources for learning: students should not suffer from unequal ability to use libraries or buy textbooks. Finally, Universities should also try and have online events for clubs and societies to be able to meet and discuss their agendas, and participate in non-academic activities.

With the situation changing almost daily, it is difficult to predict what the impact will be and how exactly both students and institutions will adapt. However, it is up to these higher education institutions to ensure that students do not bear the brunt of this unprecedented situation – and that things are as easy as possible for them to access and adjust to.

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Future of learning


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