Has entry to increased schooling been a sufferer of COVID-19?
Experts and decision-makers are amazed at the digital transformation of universities during the COVID-19 pandemic – but is university access one of the victims of the health crisis?
On September 24th, a panel of global figures convened to assess the impact of the coronavirus on equal opportunities in higher education worldwide and to create the framework for World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), which will be held on November 17th this year Will take place in 2021.
The online discussion, led by Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), coincided with the publication of a compilation of 17 articles from last year’s WAHED event, with input from college leaders, national policymakers and executives along with global leaders Educational institutions and others working to make access and success in higher education more equitable on every continent of the world.
While several speakers stressed that the equal opportunities challenges during the COVID crisis were not only between lower-income and more affluent countries, but also between different regions and communities, several participants gave reasons for the positive assessment that access to higher education was also difficult Times can move forward.
Expansion of access in the Amazon
As one of the most ambitious projects, the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in the state of Sao Paulo in southeastern Brazil has launched an expanded access program that makes a real difference for social inclusion in the Amazon rainforest 3,600 kilometers away on the border with Brazil.
Former rector Marcelo Knobel, a professor of physics at the university, said that like all public universities in Brazil, they do not charge tuition fees.
But despite 95,000 applications for 3,400 study places, they wanted to make the student body more diverse and socially inclusive.
So they almost traveled across the vast country to recruit indigenous students from 30 different indigenous Brazilian communities in the upper reaches of the Amazon rainforest.
The campaign went well when the pandemic struck thanks to a strong scholarship program.
“You can imagine the challenges when that happened,” said Knobel in the discussion.
But thanks to a wide-ranging scholarship program that includes accommodation, food, transport and, above all, psychological help and other support, they have been able to help students stay at the university during the pandemic and avoid high drop-out rates, according to Knobel.
“The key word was ‘flexibility’ during the pandemic when we switched to distance learning,” said Knobel of continuing to study during the health emergency.
“A total of 2,000 scholarships have been awarded and the university has introduced a variety of platforms and training courses for faculty members. We were determined not to leave a single student behind, ”said Knobel.
And to prove it: at the end of 2020, the university had more graduates than in 2019.
A less encouraging assessment of the effects of COVID-19, however, was global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi, who shared the tragedy of a student in India who fell in the middle of her high-profile year-end exam. “She went out and took her own life,” said Salmi.
He said: “While it is true that the disruption affected both rich and poor countries, the impact on students from vulnerable groups was much greater than that of the average student body in low-income countries.
“In particular, pupils from underrepresented groups, pupils with low incomes, girls, members of minorities, pupils in remote areas and pupils with special needs are particularly hard hit, encounter economic hardship and countless connection difficulties and live in emotional hardship.”
Salmi said the challenges of the digital gap have resulted in many universities in low-income countries struggling to set up quality distance learning programs.
“Recently, the Association of African Universities, which has 700 institutional members, summarized the experience of the past 16 months and said that very few of its members have been able to teach adequately online.
“As a result, millions of students around the world have suffered learning losses and emotional stress,” said Salmi.
Don’t go back to normal
But despite the difficulties, many universities have managed to reorganize the curriculum and find new pedagogical methods to engage students online.
“So when we begin to overcome the pandemic, it will be time to rethink the university. Let’s not try to go back to normal, ”said Salmi.
Hopefully the pandemic will accelerate the adoption of flexible pathways and innovative curriculum and assessment approaches that are more student-centered and make learning more stimulating, engaging and effective.
Indeed, one of the most positive outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis could be reinventing the teaching and learning process as a lifelong educational pathway that is primarily designed to arouse curiosity, spark passion and unleash genius, “said he.
Internship opportunities affected by the pandemic
Another challenge posed by the pandemic was the elimination of paid internships for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
This was emphasized by Cathy McLoughlin, Head of Access Services at Dublin City University in Ireland. She said they launched a successful program to help students without the right connections find quality, fully paid summer professional internships to improve their employability and future career prospects.
“In 2019, the year before the pandemic, we started a pilot project of the program. It was an innovative collaboration between our own service, the Education Foundation, to raise funds for the university, and our industrial partners, ”said McLoughlin.
However, when COVID-19 struck, only 13 of the 50 secured jobs survived as companies worried about how to keep their own employees during the pandemic.
By offering practical tools to enable virtual internships in 2021, “We ended up placing 88 students in 56 different organizations, and some companies that hired students for eight or 12 weeks got so much out of the program that they did the internship of the students extended. “Said McLoughlin.
Failures more likely
Roberta Malee Bassett, global director of higher education at the World Bank, said many of the equal opportunity problems for students at university were exacerbated when they returned home during the pandemic and faced unstable electrical infrastructure and broadband in low-income countries.
“The home environment has particularly hit those who are more likely to drop out,” she said, adding that teenage pregnancies among girls returning home were increasing, 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 improve access to and acquisition of post-secondary education and skills, said they have a goal for 60% of Americans to have a degree or college certificate have 2025. It is currently 52%.
But even in the United States, many students have been left behind, especially Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, who are not given a fair chance of access or success in post-secondary education.
She also criticized policymakers for not looking beyond direct entrants into higher education, saying that in the United States, 40% of students are over 25 and 35% are financially independent from their parents. “They’re not kids,” she said.
In a video address, Dr. Joanna Newman, Executive Director and General Secretary of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU): “The rapid shift to online teaching has exposed the gaping digital divide, not just between high and low income countries,” but within countries and institutions themselves.
“While some universities have embraced this trend and taken the opportunity to strengthen their distance learning curricula, this rapid transition to online and distance learning has exposed large discrepancies in digital access and consumption.”
To address this, she said that prior to the pandemic, ACU had led a partnership in East Africa called PEBL, or Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning, to improve the quality of blended learning, and so far has trained 170 academics in the necessary adaptive skills courses effectively for online learning.
Nic Mitchell is a UK based freelance journalist and public relations consultant specializing in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.