COVID-19 a threat to higher education access and success

Access to higher education for disadvantaged groups, refugees, women and the disabled has always been a challenge for governments and universities but the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts to shift to online learning have been a setback, not just for access but also to ensuring that all groups thrive and succeed in higher education, an online conference for the third World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) heard.

“Access to higher education can only be the starting point for all students during their higher education pathways,” said Morikawa Toru, executive director of the Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which hosted the 17 November conference for Asia in association with University World News, noting that access without a reasonable chance of success is simply an empty phrase.

Equity, access and success need to be enhanced in guiding the development of higher education, Morikawa said in his opening remarks.

But, with COVID-19, new barriers to education access and success have emerged, the speakers highlighted.

“The issue of digital divide is important,” said Chanita Rukspollmuang, vice-president for academic development at Siam University and chairperson of the Committee of National Education Council of Thailand.

Already before the pandemic, in 2017, children from very low-income families – the lowest 20% of the Thai population – had only a 5% chance of getting into higher education, about six times below the national average, she said. For those with disabilities, only one-third receive education and only 1.09% of those with education attend higher education.

Other groups with limited education opportunities include migrant children, stateless persons and indigenous tribes.

But, with the shift to remote or blended learning, as schools and universities shut because of the pandemic, inequalities become widened and disadvantage the most vulnerable students, Rukspollmuang said,

Although Thailand’s digital infrastructure is good, nonetheless about 25% of Thai university students are from poor families earning not more than 200,000 baht (US$6,600) a year. This not only has a bearing on the ‘digital divide’ issue with problems of equipment and connectivity “but also indicates that they are in urgent need of skill development to prevent unemployment,” she said, referring to a need to stem dropouts from higher education.

Flexible learning

Flexible learning, which will continue in the post-COVID era was a common theme of the conference. But, while it enables continued access to education for some students, less attention has been given to successful outcomes.

“From now on, flexible learning will be the norm. The old paradigm of face-to-face versus online will disappear. In its place is a flexible system that will move across options throughout a student’s life and university years,” said Prospero de Vera, chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

“We are now seeing and continue to see that teachers must realise that the old norms are gone. They must adjust to the new standard,” he said.

“We recognise that there are some obstacles that cannot be solved overnight, like the issue of connectivity,” De Vera said, but higher education institutions “have the capacity to adapt and be imaginative so that learning will continue”.

Addressing the issue of what is flexible learning, he added that universities should adopt what is appropriate for learning. “Universities can go full online, or combine online and offline options,” he noted, adding, “[you] can go offline in areas where there is limited connection.”

Nonetheless, he pointed to the financial impact of the need for investment in online teaching on small universities. “We are saddened that some small private universities have decided to not to open this year because the enrolment figures have gone down,” he said.

“We are concerned with the access of students to higher education if private universities stop operations,” De Vera continued, adding that the Philippines government should work with private universities on long-term solutions.

Digital access a major theme

Digital access was a major theme of speakers and the online chat forum.

Tiffany Cone is a professor of cultural anthropology at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, which has 900 students from 19 countries including Yemen, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Cone said that lack of IT access due to unreliable electricity supply, has been a problem in Bangladesh and Afghanistan in particular, since online teaching was introduced during the COVID-19 crisis.

“As an institute, it [electricity supply] is not something that we can help with; it is very difficult to fix that infrastructure,” she said.

In rural areas of Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the university reached students via mobile phones, which is inadequate, Cone said. The university is also able to reach out to other higher education institutions in countries like Afghanistan to use their space for students to access Wi-Fi and the internet.

But she pointed to mental health issues among students. “With mental health, it has really forced us to rethink what we do, to foster well-being and community,” she noted. “We recently launched the Well-Being Series to address many issues. We talk about anxiety, stress, and do a lot of meditation.”

Power outage is also a problem in Pakistan, Sameer Nizamuddin, a language instructor in a community organisation said in the chat forum. “Last summer was a disaster for our students. We had only two to three hours of electricity the entire day.”

He added that many women students dropped out of their courses, explaining that many are married and inundated with domestic responsibilities. Online teaching made it impossible for them to study.

“Physical classrooms used to make them get out of the home environment, and that’s not possible now,” he said. “They cannot focus on classes, work on assignments and be timely for assessments. Unfortunately, they end up dropping out.”

Nizamuddin is critical of government and community leaders for not paying attention to this issue. He tried to help women students by giving them alternative assessments, for example, but that has not worked either, he said.

A different type of education

Dzulkifli Bin Razak, rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia, said lack of access to higher education has existed for a long time, but the pandemic has exposed lack of values in education systems that focused on training people merely for employment.

“All the while, education has been about livelihood. We think that if livelihood is good, life is better, but it is not the case for us as far as COVID-19 is concerned. It has to do with the values in terms of the education system,” Razak said, describing current education as “almost factory-like”.

This model has not been able to deal with the “enduring problem of accessibility”, he said.

“Technology is important,” he acknowledged. “But we lost a set of values, KPIs [key performance indicators], rankings, exams, all the tangibles that are supposed to be important. When COVID-19 comes, these numbers are unimportant. Schools close, factories close, numbers become nonsensical.”

Higher education needed to move to a society-based model to improve access and success, he added.

“We are not able to learn about poverty in the classroom and by reading books. You need to engage yourself with the poor to understand what poverty is about, so the value of education is enhanced,” Razak said, emphasising that in education “all lives matter”.