New study reveals COVID’s impact on region’s universities

Measuring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education has been a major theme at the third UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in Barcelona, Spain. A report unveiled at the event describes how the universities of Latin America have weathered the storm.

The authors, a team of researchers from the National University of Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires, Argentina, compared the situation in the region’s universities in 2021 to that in 2019.

The resulting report, Informe diagnóstico sobre la educación superior y la ciencia post COVID-19 en Iberoamérica: Perspectivas y desafíos de futuro 2022 (A diagnostic report on post-COVID higher education and science in Iberia and Latin America: Perspectives and challenges for the future), was presented at WHEC2022 on 19 May and is the first to cover Latin America plus Spain and Portugal from this angle.

It focuses on five areas: education, science and technology, funding, availability of technology and internationalisation and was commissioned by the Organization of American States with support from the Development Bank of Latin America.

As official data for much of 2020 and 2021 is not yet available, the researchers carried out a large-scale review of material from academia, international organisations and the media and used interviews with educators from the largest countries to validate these findings.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

A pre-COVID-19 snapshot

Until 2019, enrolments at Latin American and Iberian universities were growing and had already passed the 30-million mark, with strongest growth in undergraduate numbers and in areas such as business, studies, law, engineering and health. The numbers of teachers and researchers had increased too and more students and teaching staff were female.

Spending on research and development as a percentage of GDP steadily increased until 2016 but started to shrink from then on. Digital ecosystems in Latin America had reached an intermediate level of development compared to the rest of the world but still showed a lot of variation between and within countries.

Levels of mobility in Latin America in 2019 were far below the global average and, in terms of the direction of travel, were overwhelmingly outward bound, with Europe and the United States the most popular destinations.

“The pandemic arrived in the midst of a scenario of inequality and economic stagnation,” says Mónica Marquina, report co-ordinator and researcher in education policy at the National University of Tres de Febrero.

A long, hard lockdown

When COVID-19 struck, the shutdown from mid to late March 2020 onwards was almost total in Latin America. By April 2020, it affected 98% of higher education students and teachers in the region, according to estimations by UNESCO-IESALC (the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean).

What began as a temporary, short-term measure ended up lasting far longer. In nearly all countries, it was to be more than 70 weeks before face-to-face activities could start up again.

“Institutions were quick to start providing remote emergency teaching, but it was the institutions and the students who supplied the resources, not the government,” says Marquina.

The speed and nature of the emergency response varied significantly between universities. Those with prior experience of online provision made the most of their head start, but it still represented a huge effort for institutions and individual academics.

Role models

Positive examples include how Paraguay’s National University of Asunción took advantage of the crisis to drive forward the use of digital tools for teaching and administrative purposes.

Brazil’s State University of Campinas carried out a staggered return to in-person classes in October 2020 for teachers and November 2020 for students. The attention to detail and level of care for the health of the academic community it showed soon become a model for other universities in Brazil and beyond.

The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) quickly launched a virtual campus including educational resources for teachers as well as advice and technical support on how to use them. This was supplemented by platforms such as, giving access to artistic and cultural works generated by the UNAM community.

In March 2020, the National University of Colombia quickly moved over 7,500 courses online and managed to adapt to having an average of 82,000 users online at once instead of 10,000.

When it came to scientific production, Latin American researchers from the various disciplines were quick to redirect their efforts towards COVID-19. Within one month of the start of lockdowns around the world, Latin American universities reported that over 85% of their researchers were working on COVID-related work.

Larger universities contributed to the public health effort through vaccine production, clinical trials, developing tests and through cooperating with the state to produce public information campaigns. Projects in other fields were often put on hold as labs were closed and restrictions limited field work.

Varying level of state support

Government support to help universities cover the costs of setting up mass provision of online education varied substantially, with authorities in Colombia, Peru and parts of Brazil providing extra funding for buying equipment or for teacher training. However, some governments diverted funding away from education towards the health sector or to pay for urgent social welfare needs.

Internet access in Latin America grew during the pandemic, increasing from around 60% in 2017 to an average of 75% in 2020. But this figure hides some major deficits. In countries such as Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, under half of the population had access and, in general, rural areas fared much worse than the cities.

There is little official data on the numbers of international students repatriated from or coming back to Latin America due to the pandemic. The study notes that countries such as Mexico or associations such the Montevideo Group suspended their programmes to support study abroad and predicts that incoming and outgoing student numbers will have been lower in 2020 and 2021 than in 2019.