Lessons from differences in university pandemic resilience

From finances to teaching and learning, the COVID-19 pandemic affected different universities in different ways. The NTU Report on Resilient Universities During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Differences between East and West sought to understand the ways universities demonstrated and enhanced their resilience in the face of the pandemic so that we can learn what might help in future disruptions.

For the report, Professor Vanessa Evers and Dr Iuna Tsyrulneva from the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity in Singapore studied local and international media and sourced data from consultancy and advisory agencies, academic publications, press releases and annual reports from selected universities to get an idea of the public dialogue relating to the performance of the academic sector.

Mitigating the financial impact

The different capacity of various national governments to respond to the COVID-19 crisis unevenly affected the academic, financial and social performance of individual universities. Universities dealt with the financial consequences of COVID-19 by leveraging new sources of funding.

Despite the gloomy predictions and pessimistic assessments of the market, many universities made efforts to rebalance their financial assets in order to respond to fast-evolving economic circumstances. For example, 55 out of 76 universities in China under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education recorded an increase in funding.

Japan, realising the country’s lack of long-term and stable funding for research, established an endowment fund (US$43 billion) to support scientific research.

The United States endorsed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act on 27 March 2020, which acquired more than US$1 billion in supplemental funding for research and development. Most of this was for research on COVID-19.

The CARES Act also established a US$14 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund for colleges and universities, with at least half of this total allocated for emergency financial aid grants to students.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused lab and campus shutdowns that led to unmet deadlines and financially affected PhD students and early-career researchers who were reliant on grant funding.

To mitigate the drawbacks, the US National Science Foundation, US National Institutes of Health, the French National Research Agency, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the Australian Research Council, the National Research Foundation Singapore and other funding agencies loosened restrictions on deadlines for project reports and other requirements.

The majority of European countries launched schemes to support research and development and manufacturing of products that were directly useable to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Canada’s International Development Research Centre supported the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund, available across 17 countries for research on battling the COVID-19 virus in Africa.

However, the majority of African universities remained closed for months due to insufficient government funding to build a resilient response to COVID-19.

Facing a decrease in federal funding and loss of income from tuition fees, universities leveraged generous support from university donors. For example, Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico recorded a 55% growth in fundraising in 2020-21, while the Chinese University of Hong Kong observed an almost 40% increase in donations and gifts as compared to 2019.

Transfer to online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic affected some countries more than others. Surveys conducted with students from Germany, the UK, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and India demonstrated that more than 60% of students were satisfied with online classes.

Notably, higher satisfaction was generally observed in countries with strict lockdowns and at universities that were compliant with governmental policies of COVID-19 containment.

At the same time, surveys conducted among Korean, English and Indonesian students pointed to unsatisfactory teaching quality and a lack of technological tools to study online.

To address the latter, countries distributed connectivity kits to facilitate access to remote learning and free data (Brazil and South Africa, among others), provided free access to educational web pages (Argentina, Chile and Vietnam) and organised laptop donation drives (Singapore).

Low enrolment and employment rates

Overall enrolment at American universities showed a decline during the pandemic. Black, Hispanic, Native American and female students were affected the most. The enrolment in doctoral programmes in the humanities and social sciences in the US significantly decreased due to suspended admissions. At the same time, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees kept admitting new graduate students as they were supported mostly by external grant programmes.

The UK, Australia, Europe and some South Asian countries reported low employment rates for new graduates. Wealthier countries developed governmental initiatives to boost the employability of graduates, which made new graduates in Australia and Singapore more confident about their job prospects. Students in India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka faced cancelled recruitment drives, layoffs and the suspension of retraining programmes.

Academic hiring halted

Universities that mainly depended on tuition fees from students ceased recruitment of faculty. For example, the estimated decline of enrolment in UK universities forced them to cut expenditure and halt the recruitment of new staff. Many American universities imposed hiring freezes in the spring of 2020. Australian universities reported losing up to 10% of their staff by February 2021. France and the UK also showed disturbing trends of researchers quitting.

At the same time, in China, Malaysia and Poland, a university job was considered relatively secure. European principal investigators who were financed mostly through external agency funding did not experience a severe reduction in job positions. Notably, recruitment carried on for those researchers and faculty whose research area was related to COVID-19.

Dependency on foreign students’ fees

Many universities are reconsidering their current policies after realising they rely strongly on income from international students. The enrolment of new international students to Australian and New Zealand universities fell by 23%-30% in 2020. In the US it fell by 43%.

The UK faced similar problems, being highly dependent on Chinese postgraduate students, but it managed to continue attracting prospective international students in 2020, sometimes even by organising charter flights from host countries.

The effect of the restricted mobility caused by COVID-19 was not so pronounced for countries that are less reliant on inbound international students, such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, China, India and others.

Opportunities for the future

COVID-19 has demonstrated how integrated the world is. The road to universities’ recovery is not in expecting to return to a pre-COVID-19 reality, but instead in reinventing their approach to education and campus design, innovating through collaborative approaches to research, reconsidering their vision and re-imagining the university as a partner for lifelong adaptable learning.

It is essential to look at the challenges created by the pandemic as being new uncharted opportunities that could improve the academic experience for students and researchers.

The pandemic has taught the world a lesson about the importance of partnerships and multilateral collaboration, be they in connection with policy or regulation adoption, developing a research strategy, or one relating to the employment of young graduates.

Universities’ ability to navigate through the financial impact of the pandemic was enhanced by diversified funding that came from partnerships with the private sector, industry and international organisations, as well as from endowment funds and donations. Traditional educational schemes prioritising on-campus education needed to be revised and redesigned.

The spread of virtual courses and seminars led to the inclusion of more diversified opinions and the development of collaborations that would not have been possible otherwise.

It also became increasingly important to nurture students’ resilience and adaptability by teaching them to respond quickly to the changing needs of volatile job markets and introducing short-term micromodules, online courses, virtual exchange alliances, virtual internships and digital certificates.

All of these lessons will be important for the future and for preparing for the next wave of disruption.

Dr Iuna Tsyrulneva is a postdoctoral fellow at NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH), Singapore, working on conceptualising global societal challenges. Dr Sulfikar Amir is an associate professor of science, technology and society, school of social sciences, Nanyang Technological University, and acting director of NISTH, with a core interest in risk, disaster and resilience. In addition to a cross-section of the global academic landscape in relation to COVID-19, the NTU Report on Resilient Universities During the COVID-19 Pandemic also offers an in-depth analysis of the academic, social and financial performance of selected universities (Nanyang Technological University, Tsinghua University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Sydney, University of Rwanda, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education or Tecnológico de Monterrey, Stanford University and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich or ETH Zurich), as well as a list of best adaptive practices exercised by universities worldwide.