Innovation and flexibility: How the pandemic has sparked a revolution

Higher education's response to COVID-19 deserves recognition and praise, with the rapid move to online learning, a continued shift to quality online courses, and plans to strike a balance between in-person and digital instruction.

The global economy has been set in free fall in light of the global pandemic. Many businesses worldwide are slowly opening again after a prolonged closure, while the global public are still grappling with the impact of social distancing.

Universities have been dealt a heavy blow, too. On the one hand, lecturers have been working at breakneck speed to establish alternative teaching methods, while on the other, questions have been raised regarding attendance by international students and whether they might be able to attend a campus abroad any time soon. With 63% fewer scheduled flights taking off globally compared to this time next year, most air passengers are currently flying back home—not away from it.

The pressure on universities to offer top-quality teaching was already increasing pre-COVID-19, too. According to our recent Future of International Education research in partnership with the Future Laboratory, 65% of international students consider “quality of education” the most significant driver in their choice of destination.

Andrew Summerill, Western Union
Andrew Summerill, Western Union

But despite the ongoing disruption and tragedy of COVID-19, universities’ response to the pandemic across the globe deserves recognition and praise.

Rapid response

Take the quick move by many universities to online teaching—both to prevent the spread of infection, as well as to minimize the disruption of learning for students. New channels of remote education are opening as we speak. Some leading institutions, such as London’s LSE, also plan to stop in-person exams, using alternative methods.

With the same courses often taught year after year in traditional faculties, and with some institutions having stood for centuries, universities have often been historically regarded as being slow to embrace change. Their agility during the pandemic, however, reveals how they have moved beyond bricks and mortar to step up their digital offering to students—and fast.

A bubbling demand being met

Even before the outbreak, student appetite for online courses was increasing rapidly, and many universities had begun investing more in technology. After all, technology is ingrained into the fabric of daily life for the majority of Gen Z. According to our research, five distinct student profiles are set to evolve due to the shifting attitudes and behaviors of today’s youth. One of these is the Digital Learner, who sees technology simply as an extension of themselves in all situations, learning included.

Contributing to our report, Jane Edwards, senior associate dean and dean of international and professional experience at Yale University, notes that merging online learning platforms across national boundaries will create a borderless 21st-century education system: “In the future, transnational education will allow students to engage virtually from their home campus, with one point in their educational experience in which they will get on a plane and go somewhere,” she says.

Striking a balance between virtual and physical

While digitalisation is key to higher education, this is therefore about getting the balance between virtual and physical just right. Going fully digital is not a sustainable—or suitable—alternative to traditional learning.

Eventually, after all, universities will get the green light to re-open their campus doors and return to some sort of normality. For most students, completing a degree goes beyond lectures and seminars. It’s a chance to establish a home-away-from-home with friends on-campus. In-person learning lies at the crux of the entire student experience.

The learning landscape at universities is also enriched by the presence of international students, with the regional perspectives and educational methods they bring. They provide a boost to the local economy, too, giving a vital lifeline to global university towns and cities.

Looking ahead

Combining digital with the traditional won’t necessarily be straightforward when it comes to altering course structures and, potentially, tuition fees. But now is the time for universities to prepare and set a lasting wheel of change in motion, as the critical role of higher education within society is only set to increase.

With university scientists and researchers already on the frontlines of the drive to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, universities need to keep attracting the brightest minds of the world ahead of future global health crises.

Gen Z places higher education in the spotlight within the growing climate change debate, too, as our research shows that university sustainability credentials play a key part in students’ choice of academic institution. By providing eco-friendlier campuses along with high-quality research on sustainability, universities can set an example for wider society.

New thinking will also be crucial to the international economic recovery, as the pandemic is set to be a great leveller. While we are more dependent than ever on frontline workers, the pandemic is set to accelerate the automation of middle-skilled work. As most roles in the future will require a higher level of skills, it will be crucial to accelerate upskilling programs across the globe. Universities’ digitalization of education will play an important role here in increasing accessibility to education across the world.

As lockdowns gradually ease, academic institutions must not undo the good work they have done. It is an opportunity to keep innovating, by embracing both the traditional and the digital.

Andrew Summerill is president of payments at Western Union.

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