In the sea of ‘learning poverty’, edtech offers a lifeline

The need to provide disadvantaged populations with pathways towards higher education is rising, just as universities are struggling to recover financially from the pandemic. So, how can the sector lower the financial and geographic barriers to education at a time when universities are increasingly being tasked with managing the bottom line?

The answer, to a large degree, resides in the power and reach of technology.

As the pandemic’s intensity wanes, international student mobility has increased. However, the financial pressure on universities remains high as the sector begins to work through losses suffered from the global health crisis.

A recent analysis indicates that, in the United States alone, colleges and universities could lose US$183 billion due to the COVID health crisis; undoubtedly, the financial toll on the global higher education sector would be exponentially higher.

As a result, the need for university recruiters to generate revenue via international student tuition fees is greater than ever.

Pent-up demand for study abroad has helped the United Kingdom draw the 600,000 international students that are currently studying in the country, hitting a national goal nearly a decade early, but the pandemic deflated US international student numbers to below one million – the first time the number has dipped to that level since 2014-15.

Australia kept its borders closed for two years and, as a result, the value of its international education sector will potentially fall by half.

Pressure to expand access

At the same time, the need to expand access to higher education has never been more urgent. Even before the war in Ukraine, the number of displaced people globally was at a record-high 84 million, greater than the population of Iran or Germany, with only 5% able to access higher education.

Today, with the war in Ukraine having firmly crossed the 100-day threshold, an additional 14 million people have been displaced. Providing this ballooning population with the skills to build new, productive lives is now a global priority.

At a recent Duolingo English Test university event focusing on lowering barriers to education, Manal Stulgaitis, an education officer in the Division of Resilience and Solutions at the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, noted that the stakes were high.

“When we’re talking about higher education for refugees, we’re talking about investing in years with the highest return in terms of long-term socio-economic outcomes. Refugee students don’t want to be reliant on humanitarian aid. There is a new focus on building self-reliance,” Stulgaitis said.

Addressing education needs among the disenfranchised has evolved as the nature of the refugee population has also changed. Previously, the humanitarian response had generally focused on meeting immediate needs, with an emphasis on providing primary education. Secondary education was an afterthought.

However, protracted refugee situations have proliferated and the displaced can spend decades living outside their home countries. With entire generations growing up in camps, the potential for host communities becoming financially strained due to long-term humanitarian efforts is a red-button issue.

A lack of access to education is not limited to refugees. In fact, education is often what delineates, more broadly, the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’.

Education as a vehicle for inequality

“A lot of people talk about education as something that brings equality to different social classes, but I always saw it as the opposite, something that actually brings inequality,” said Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo and a native of Guatemala. “What happens in practice is the wealthy can buy themselves the best education in the world, while the poor barely learn how to read and write.”

Indeed, in May 2022 the World Bank cited “learning poverty” in low- to middle-income countries due to pandemic-triggered school closures of up to two years as an acute issue, while at the Education World Forum education was described as being “in its worst crisis in a century”.

Before the pandemic, in these areas, around half of students did not have the reading skills to understand a simple story by age 10; now, as many as 70% lack these foundational skills.

So, how can universities remain financially viable while serving the greater good?

The potential for technology to close the gap between the need to educate more people and to generate funding was demonstrated during the pandemic. When school campuses closed due to safety concerns, edtech companies facilitated the global pivot to virtual classes by providing video conferencing platforms and learning solutions.

Perhaps most importantly, resistance to online learning on the part of both students and faculty was effectively eliminated, creating fertile ground to continue exploring alternatives to in-person learning and assessment. The ability to scale learners at lower costs has the potential to lower barriers, both geographic and financial.

Accessible and affordable higher education

Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People, believes a tuition-fee-free, no-frills accredited university education, delivered virtually, is an answer.

The University of the People has a roster of world-class professors teaching pro bono. It utilises open-source resources and currently enrols more than 117,000 students from over 200 countries. There may not be a football team nor library, but there are also no tuition fees.

“We are in a way a disruption to the traditional model, as we show that higher education can be accessible and affordable,” said Reshef. As an example, the University of the People currently enrols more than 10,500 refugees.

There is no end in sight to the refugee crisis, nor to the income inequality that persistently separates some social classes and populations from employment opportunities and prosperity. While the challenges can appear overwhelming, edtech holds promise in continuing to offer innovative solutions.

Its influence is expected to intensify, with the industry, currently valued at some US$85 billion, forecast to grow to US$230 billion by 2028.

But tech alone isn’t enough – the goodwill and efforts of individuals and universities are necessary to create sector-level buy-in. Only then can we collectively and constructively address the world’s pressing social and economic problems.

Anna Esaki-Smith is co-founder of Education Rethink, a research consultancy specialising in international student recruitment and partnership development, global content strategies and thought leadership. Anna also writes for Forbes.