Universities face common problems – They need to share information

COVID-19 has kicked up numerous challenges to access and equity in higher education across the world. Although contexts differ, the pandemic has also highlighted common problems and global interconnectedness. For these reasons, it is critical for universities to share information, says Professor Samuel Stanley, president of Michigan State University in the United States.

Many solutions found in the United States to problems caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 might work in African universities, and vice versa, he told a webinar series on “Educational access at higher education institutions in the age of COVID-19”.

Held on 27 May, the webinar was the third in a six-part series of public dialogues hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership, a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and MSU. It was titled “Dialogue #3 – Educational access at higher education institutions in the age of COVID-19” and may be accessed here. University World News – Africa is one of the dialogue partners.


COVID-19 reared its head just four months after Stanley – previously president of Stony Brook University in New York – was appointed president of MSU, one of America’s leading public research universities, with 55,000 students. “We are global in our outreach,” he said of MSU. “We are very proud of the fact that we are a global university.”

An alumnus of the University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School, Stanley was a professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology at the University of Washington, and one of the top recipients of support from the National Institutes of Health for research on defences against emerging infectious diseases.

As an infectious diseases specialist, Stanley watched, with his knowledgeable eye, what was happening in Wuhan, and the spread of the disease out of China to Europe, America and elsewhere.

At first he hoped COVID-19 could be contained, as coronavirus predecessors SARS and MERS had been.

“But then I realised we were dealing with something that we haven’t seen around the world in decades.” In the past century, the most severe previous global epidemic was HIV in the 1980s, “and we are still dealing with it”, Stanley pointed out.

“I would not have predicted that the United States would lead the world in the number of cases, and lead the world, by far, in the number of deaths.” As of 3 June, there were 1,869,013 COVID-19 cases in the US and 107,648 Americans had died.

The response

Two of the first cases of COVID-19 in the US occurred in Michigan. Stanley appointed a task force in February to plan for contingencies. The university quickly went online on 11 March – before other US campuses, though most followed rapidly.

Most students left campus, as did 88% of staff. “Within two days we were teaching everybody online, remotely. That was an amazing accomplishment,” Stanley said, thanks to academics and other staff at MSU. The university continued to host about 2,000 students on campus, including international students.

MSU completed a semester including final examinations, and held a virtual commencement for students. “It was a sea change and yet everybody responded well.”

Some access and equity challenges

Not everything went perfectly, however. The university has “been addressing issues around inequality and access as they arise” – and there have been more issues than anticipated.

Being off-campus and working fully online has been a “huge challenge”, especially for economically disadvantaged students with home situations that are unconducive to learning or getting online – as has happened almost everywhere, and certainly in Africa.

MSU provided some equipment to students in need, and there have been major financial aid programmes. It is also allowing some students to remain on campus, where they can access wi-fi, “and where students have the social interactions that are so important.”

The pandemic in America has had disparate effects on populations. For instance, African Americans represent about 14% of the population in Michigan but people of colour have suffered 40% of deaths from COVID-19. “This is a terrible thing,” said Stanley, pointing to serious problems with healthcare and poverty in the United States.

Many students have had to deal with both disruption of their education and devastation of their families.

The financial consequences of the pandemic have been extraordinary in the US. Aside from income losses hitting universities, there have been financial consequences for students, many of whom have lost employment, as have family members.

“We’ve frozen tuition [fees] for the coming years so there is no increase in cost for students,” Stanley said. MSU has been working very hard to access government and institutional funds. It has found work for students who had lost employment, in areas supporting post-COVID activities.

Stanley outlined an interesting access and equity initiative at MSU that helped students desperate for income as well as disabled students who were facing difficulties with online learning. Hard-up students were employed to caption online courses for the hearing impaired, and to narrate courses and charts for the visually impaired, to improve course quality.

Staff overload

The problem of staff overload, which many universities faced pre-COVID-19, has only escalated. “This is a really challenging issue for us, and it has been complicated by the fact that many of our faculty are working from home as well, and they have children they are having to care for at the same time they are doing their faculty duties,” Stanley said.

In response, the university has tried to set up support services for staff. Also: “We’re trying to be very understanding about things like the ‘tenure clock’. A year has been added to the process so academics on the tenure track don’t have to worry about fulfilling all the requirements during this stressful and distracting time.

“Further, faculty have themselves been very good, setting up online chat sessions so they can decompress after courses, and ‘coffee breaks’ to help provide moral support.”

Quality and sharing

Last year MSU’s College of Education was ranked first in the world for education by ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects. This year US News & World Report also ranked the college first in the US for four graduate programmes in education and rehabilitation counselling.

The college has been an “extraordinary asset”, said Stanley. Its expertise has been helping to ensure that online education is of high quality.

He was asked by webinar moderator Professor Paul Zeleza – vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa, in Kenya – about the extent to which MSU had been participating in open education resources development, and whether it was willing to freely share academic resources it developed – especially those supported by public funding.

Stanley said MSU was already sharing best practices as well as “resources that can make a difference”.

Over the COVID-19 period, for example, one of the US’s most popular massive open online courses or MOOCs has been a very short course (under 20 minutes) for teachers on how to do school teaching online, produced by the College of Education.

Further, MSU has a public radio and television station that among other things is used to provide educational content for schools across Michigan, which has a population of some 10 million people, as part of its resource-sharing role.

Stanley said sharing fully online courses was feasible, but sharing might be more difficult with hybrid courses, which most are likely to be in future. Providing course resources, along with what is expected from the in-person component, might make sharing possible.

The future

MSU has been thinking hard about what to do going forward, said Stanley.

Among other things, it has encouraged more online learning for students over the summer months – more than ever before. There has been extensive training of faculty on how to teach more effectively online. Research is getting back on track and MSU has 50 new research projects devoted to COVID-19.

The university has been planning for the autumn or fall semester.

“We are looking at ways in which we can safely open.” Michigan has done well controlling the spread of COVID-19, presenting an opportunity to start bringing people back to campus.

Everybody on campus will be required to wear a mask – indoors or outdoors. “We’ll try to keep people six feet apart.” MSU will hold hybrid classes, and some that are purely online.

“The most vulnerable population on our campus is faculty and staff because they are older folks. About a third of faculty are over the age of 50 at MSU, which puts them in a higher risk group in dealing with coronavirus infection. We have to make sure they are protected.”

The university is looking at ways to provide protection in classrooms, and might introduce some classes outside when the weather is good. It will no longer be practical to have very large classes; even with masks the risk would be too high – at MSU there can be more than 500 people in a class.

“We will be cutting those classes down in size, having sections of them that can be face-to-face but the lectures themselves would be delivered asynchronously or remotely if that’s what we have to do,” Stanley told the webinar.

The university is adjusting its academic calendar, shortening the semester to some extent, and having some points of study that are purely online. The best solution going forward, Stanley believes, will be a form of hybrid teaching and learning combining new and improved online resources with the face-to-face provision that is so valuable – and valued by students.