A severe risk of growing inequality between universities

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as no other recent phenomenon has. Higher education did not escape the storm. According to UNESCO, on 1 April 2020 schools and higher education institutions were closed in 185 countries, affecting more than 1.5 billion learners, constituting 89.4% of total enrolled learners.

In order to better understand the disruption caused by COVID-19 on higher education and to investigate the first measures undertaken by higher education institutions around the world to respond to the crisis, the International Association of Universities (IAU) launched the IAU Global Survey on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education around the World.

The survey investigated the impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of higher education, teaching and learning, research and community engagement.

It was available online and open from 25 March until 17 April 2020. It received 576 replies from 424 universities and other higher education institutions in 109 countries and two special administrative regions of China (Hong Kong and Macao).

The results were analysed both at the global level and at the regional level in four regions of the world (Africa, the Americas, Asia & Pacific, and Europe).

Considerable impact on higher education

In agreement with UNESCO data, almost all institutions that replied to the survey have been affected by COVID-19, with 59% of them replying that all campus activities have stopped and the institution is completely closed.

The percentage of institutions in Africa responding to the same question is 77%, higher than in all other regions. This result might be surprising because at the time of the survey Africa was the region with the lowest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the world, while more affected regions were Asia & Pacific and especially Europe.

It might indicate that African higher education institutions decided (or were obliged by their governments) to close their campuses as a preventive measure, much more in advance than higher education institutions in the other regions.

This result gives an idea of the magnitude of the disruption brought by COVID-19 on higher education; in fact, even in regions and countries not strongly affected (yet) by the disease, campuses closed and higher education institutions were forced to adapt to a new way of teaching and learning, conducting research and engaging with local communities.

Online teaching and virtual mobility

At almost all higher education institutions that responded to the survey, COVID-19 affected teaching and learning, with two-thirds of them reporting that classroom teaching has been replaced by distance teaching and learning.

At the same time, 89% of higher education institutions reported an impact on student mobility. The type of impact is diverse and varies from institution to institution, but everywhere it has been negative.

Sixty per cent of higher education institutions reported that COVID-19 has increased virtual mobility and-or collaborative online learning as alternatives to physical student mobility. This may safeguard internationalisation to some extent, but this shift will have to be analysed in more detail.

In fact, the shift from face-to-face to distance teaching did not come without challenges, the main ones reported by respondents being access to technical infrastructure, competences and pedagogies for distance learning and the requirements of specific fields of study.

Different impacts

Some 80% of higher education institutions reported that research has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic at their institutions. The most common impact of COVID-19 has been the cancelling of international travel (at 83% of higher education institutions) and the cancellation or postponement of scientific conferences (81% of higher education institutions). This suggests that the international component of research has been affected the most.

However, the negative impact of COVID-19 goes beyond that, as a bit more than half of higher education institutions (52%) reported that scientific projects are at risk of not being completed and 21% of higher education institutions even reported that scientific research has completely stopped.

On the other hand, the impact on partnerships and community engagement has been a mixed one. Almost two-thirds (64%) of higher education institutions reported that COVID-19 affected their partnerships.

However, among those reporting an effect of COVID-19 on their partnerships, two groups of almost the same size can be identified, those higher education institutions for which COVID-19 had a negative effect, weakening the partnerships, and those for which COVID-19 had a positive effect.

It is interesting to note that 60% of higher education institutions reporting a positive effect said that the COVID-19 pandemic had created new opportunities with partner institutions, while 40% of them reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had strengthened existing partnerships.

A similar trend emerges for community engagement. At a bit less than half of higher education institutions the impact of COVID-19 was positive – the crisis increased higher education institutions’ community engagement – whereas at a bit less than one third the impact was negative, decreasing higher education institutions’ community engagement activities.

The results for partnerships and community engagement point to the existence of two different groups, one which has been able to react more promptly to the crisis and profit from new opportunities offered by the crisis and one which did not have the means or the capacity to do so and represents universities which have been the most affected by the crisis.

For instance, institutions with medical and nursing schools responded actively to the emergency call of local communities to help with the impact of COVID-19.

Among the institutions that reported conducting community engagement activities, 22% replied that their university hospital provides care for affected people and 40% that they provide medical advice and support.

Risk of growing inequality

The data on partnerships and community engagements suggest the existence of two different groups of higher education institutions, with one group being in a weaker position than the other to react to the crisis and feeling its consequences more negatively.

This suggests that there is a severe risk of growing inequality among higher education institutions, as already underlined by other organisations, for instance, the World Bank.

The risk of growing inequality is emerging also from the results of the regional analysis, with higher education institutions in Africa reporting more difficulties and negative effects than higher education institutions in other regions.

Reasserting the role of higher education

To end on a positive note, the IAU Global Survey results show that almost three-quarters of higher education institutions are contributing to public policies either through their institutional leadership or through their researchers. This confirms the importance of higher education for society, but hopefully also the recognition of its importance by society.

However, for the higher education community to be successful in making a positive contribution to society in the present and after the crisis abates, the risk of growing inequality needs to be minimised.

The best way to minimise this risk is through more collaboration between higher education institutions and between higher education institutions, governments, the private sector and society at large inside and among countries.

Giorgio Marinoni is manager, higher education and internationalisation policy and projects of the International Association of Universities (IAU). E-mail: Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States, and senior IAU fellow. E-mail:

The report of the IAU Global Survey on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education around the World is available for free download on the IAU website here. IAU and CIHE at Boston College are pleased to invite you to register for the webinar "The future of Higher Education: internationalisation strategies post COVID-19" on Tuesday 30 June, 14:00 - 15:30 CEST. Registration is free and available here.