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Accelerating University 4.0 by Technology Shifts and Pandemic Drifts

Accelerating University 4.0 by Technology Shifts and Pandemic Drifts

The intersection between the technological and the pandemic shock became a real paradox to be managed by the higher education institutions. It all started in March 2020 with the decision to suspend face-to-face teaching activities and the following week thousands of students were learning online until the end of the semester. The main challenges regarding the business model of higher education institutions remain unresolved – as there is a general feeling of uncertainty and anxiety regarding the end of the pandemic and the resumption of normality.

The complexity of the pandemic shock translated into a very sudden shift to and a strong reliance on the technological measures – before, technology had been an ancillary tool to complement face to face education and lead to higher quality levels. Today, it is more than an enhancement; rather, it has become the indispensable facilitator of the curriculum, lectures, discussions, assessments, final exams, and graduation presentations. Inside the international market for higher education for the current semester, a relevant question is “How many students postponed their plans to study abroad for at least 1 year?” – In connection with the movement of the curriculum online, the quality of the study experience and the overall safety concerns.

According to important voices from developed countries, the pandemic implies a general rethink of both national and international education, which can be continued through digitalisation. This measure would ensure resilience in education and the safety of teaching, but at the same time there are concerns regarding the increased costs of studying, the efficiency of the remote education and its success, especially for Lab based-programs. 

Moving higher education online 

The immediate reaction from the institutions, aiming to delay the increase in the number of cases, was to move the entire classroom activity online. The undergraduates found themselves in a very different scenario compared to how the year started, many of them considering as well that the measure was needed and useful, especially since their studies continued and were not as exposed to the infection risk. The difficulties continued as the crisis did not have a clear timeline for its end and was particularly worrying for foreign students, who are more vulnerable to international decisions and sudden changes and being isolated far from their home country. Not many students that were caught by the lockdowns abroad were ready to return to their mother country when it was possible, and, since the degree of uncertainty was high, the decision to temporarily remain inside the campus and to continue their activity online seemed reasonable. Furthermore, it was not decided from the start that the exams or final dissertations would take place entirely online. For part of the international students, travel to their home countries was impossible because of border closures and flight cancellations. As a consequence, the educational process was accompanied by a strong feeling of isolation, little to no social contact, anxiety and even depression. According to an American study from the end of March, among university students in the United States, around 75% reported to have experienced anxiety and depression related to the pandemics (UNESCO, 2020).

The challenges that COVID-19 particularly raises for universities reflect how each function is affected. First of all, as educational institutions, one of their main purposes is to transmit knowledge in a way that prepares the undergraduate students to start a career path, providing an area of expertise and valuable skills to build on in their professional activity. Besides teaching, the adjacent functions of university involves socialization, class debates, group creation, civic work, research, innovation and labour pooling (McKinsey Report, 2020). In this context, even though many higher educational institutions shifted to online learning, a long-term change would create a major adjustment of the business model, meaning that remote education allows a wider number of students but reduced tuition fees. Online learning exposes the educational system to many competitors, especially the remote-based platforms that are specialized and could compete with private or public institutions that operate with high fixed costs (The Economist, 2020). 

Direct and indirect costs 

The tuition fees for higher education vary from country to country and beside the programs that are offered free of charge, the costs related to studying can become a real burden. For this reason, over 260,000 students started a solemn petition sent to the English government asking for a decrease of the tax amount, as they consider that the price for remote teaching should be lower compared to the ones for regular learning. An annual tax, on average, of 9,250 pounds per year for studying in the United Kingdom is considered an enormous amount. A similar approach was adopted by students from South Korea and USA. Furthermore, an increased proportion of students from reputable business schools consider that online classes deliver less value emphasising that it excludes the authentic creation of university networks. Not only do most students have loans to pay off throughout their working lives, but also the contracts for accommodation remain valid no matter whether they live there or not. These measures vary from institution to institution as there is no generally accepted policy and the higher education organisations respond according to their expertise. Another factor worth mentioning is the strong impact for the 2020-2021 graduates, as graduation marks the period when they must start paying down their loan (though some states defer it until they are employed) and the overall situation of the labour market is complicated because of the pandemic, not to mention the market anticipations of considerable income reductions for the graduates that enter the labour market during the crisis (Sanz, et al., 2020).

On the other hand, many postgraduate students find the online experience suiting them better, as they can combine it with a potential job and allows more flexibility, even during the exam session. The online learning experience was also preferred for the main advantages it offers: faster communication, interactivity and adaptability. For many students, the comfort of entering a classroom by a click and in a second will be missed after the face-to-face activities restart. 

Expats in corona times – from international to online 

According to the OECD, in 2017 over 5.3 million students chose to conduct their higher education studies in a foreign country, China having the absolute record of nationals studying abroad, at 928,000 students. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemics on the market for higher education varies from country to country, but the expectations of foreign students enrolling in higher education abroad decrease exponentially, resulting in losses for the main receivers of international students (Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom) (UNESCO, 2020). The promoter of academic mobility inside Europe, the ERASMUS Program, will also suffer essential impacts as long as the European countries maintain their borders closed and are seen as the new epicentre of the pandemic, especially Spain, France, Italy and Germany, countries that attracted in 2016/2017 over 800,000 international students. Due to the increased health alert, the continuity of the ERASMUS Program will depend on the general evolution of the pandemics, but it is expected to remain in limbo for the time being (European Commission, 2020). 

Mobility plans in the face of COVID-19 

The impact of the pandemics on the desire to study abroad comes in different forms. First of all, due to governmental laws, university closures, but also related measures such as restrictions on public gatherings, meetings, events or travel (German Academic Exchange Service, 2020). Given this difficult context, the universities are trying to adapt by finding the best ways in which they could combine technology with offline interaction. First of all, a hybrid system was promoted by numerous institutions, especially by encouraging freshmen to hold face to face courses twice a week. As far as the admissions process is involved, the tests that are meant to certify English proficiency for international programs such as IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language) now have a home edition version accepted by many institutions. This is because, during the application period for the first semester of 2020 (March-June), the prospective students that were affected by the lockdown could not attend the examinations. While most of the Western European universities expect a decrease in the number of foreign students, Germany has the potential to remain appealing to the students who might have considered the US or the UK for their studies, but are no longer being considered because of the health crisis. Furthermore, Germany is known for having low to zero tuition fees and a good healthcare system (Deutsche Welle, 2020).

In terms of international mobility plans, the fact that face-to-face activities have been suspended created a real disruption considering the functions of higher education institutions. The extent of the technological and health challenge posed to universities depends on their ability to offer valuable academic that is financially sustainable. Another vital factor to ensure the continuity of teaching places the accent on the teachers and their skill at performing their work virtually, which requires further preparation and is surely translated into an extra effort that is not necessarily remunerated (UNESCO, 2020).

Regarding the technological shock, it is essential to emphasise the importance of networks, stable internet, the performance of devices and tools for both teachers and students. The theoretical accessibility and viability of online education can be affected by practical problems such as the existence of a good laptop for each student inside a household.

To conclude, the higher education institutions tried to remain resilient in the face of the pandemic by moving their entire activity online, but, in the long run, this measure will create other shifts in the way universities function, especially due to their business model, high tuition fees and decreased numbers of international students. 

Photo 1 by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

Photo 2 by Tamás Mészáros from Pexels 


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