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Goodbye old-school [partner content]

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken the education sector, forcing more than 90 per cent of the world’s students to stay home. But opportunities for change have arisen from the crisis, hastening the reinvention of the university sector

Andy Phillips, chief operating officer of The University of Wollongong in Dubai

On March 8, the UAE government temporarily closed schools and universities across the country as fears of coronavirus grew in the region and across the world. The shutdown was initially expected to last for two weeks, but was soon extended until the end of the academic year in June.

The UAE was not alone. Unesco figures show that 91 per cent of the world’s student population – across primary, secondary and tertiary education – were unable to attend classes.

The situation set the world’s educators into overdrive as they looked for ways to continue educating children and young adults while simultaneously allowing them to isolate and remain safe from disease.

This involved a lot of quick fixes, and classes moved to videoconferencing software such as WebEx, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, along with more specialised IT solutions geared around internet learning.

While parents of primary-school children may have struggled with home learning, and secondary-age pupils were disoriented by further disruption during their transition to adulthood, university students perhaps stood to be the least affected, and even to see benefits from the shift to remote learning.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Salah-Eddine Kandri, global head of education at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, said: “While each level of education faces its unique challenges, it is the higher education segment that may end up, by necessity, triggering a learning revolution.” He says that university-age students are both old enough for the rigours and self-discipline of online work and tech savvy enough to adapt to the technologies in place.

Different markets and institutions have not had the same experiences when moving university education from a classroom-based model to an online one. Developing countries have faced challenges of digital infrastructure, systems shortcomings and lack of access to digital devices amongst both institutions and their students.

While more developed markets were more likely to have wider access to fast and affordable internet and the software and hardware to shift from physical to digital classrooms, their challenges were more around attitudes and expectations. Traditional campus universities have grown on a tradition of in-place learning, and the thicker the ivy the slower the transition to new ways of doing things.

The IFC’s Kandri notes that while enrolment was dropping internationally for campus-based programmes and rising for online courses even before the Covid-19 outbreak, the pandemic has meant “we are seeing how yesterday’s disruptors can become today’s lifeguards. While traditional institutions once viewed online education as a threat, it has come to their rescue.”

Universities have traditionally fulfilled more roles than simply being systems to impart academic learning into students. They are places where youth come of age and discover themselves; they are social hubs; they offer pastoral care and indulge extracurricular interests. And shifting these aspects online will be more of a challenge.

However, Forbes magazine writer Andrew DePietro, focusing primarily on the US education system, suggests that parents are likely to move from sending their sons and daughters to a university that is “a good fit” to one that is “worth it”. That is, one that will present better return on investment.

In the international market, investments in education can be even steeper than domestically, as overseas students tend to pay full tuition, whereas local and national attendees often have discounted or subsidised fees.

Even so, more than 5 million students travel abroad each year, and bring big money to their host countries. They are worth $8.6bn to the UK economy and $45bn to the US economy, according to Andy Phillips (pictured), chief operating officer of The University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD). Chinese students alone contribute up to $8bn to Australia’s GDP.

Phillips cites a recent survey by Dubai International Academic City and BMI, a consultancy for international education, that found sporting and communal facilities are least important for international students when choosing where to study. Their top priorities are quality of education and increased chances of employment.

This suggests that universities looking to improve their intake of high-paying international students may choose to focus less on their facilities and more on curriculums, a situation that the coronavirus remote-working scenario has forced upon many already.

Mazen Houalla, director and head of the public sector advisory practice for management consultancy KPMG Lower Gulf, recently wrote: “Moving from traditional learning to a more flexible style that fits the current crisis and beyond requires redevelopment of the education system and its tools, and most importantly the empowerment of teachers.” He added that as learning delivery channels evolve, so should the ways the learning is taught, and if his advice is followed, we can expect to see a broader spectrum of teaching practices that may be more inclusive of students’ needs and abilities.

At an organisational and communications level, universities are already reinventing themselves as they recruit admissions for the upcoming academic year. Writing in Campaign’s ‘New Marketing’ issue, UOWD’s director of marketing and student recruitment Brendan Michael Vyner says the university has launched virtual open days to compensate for a lack of the on-site experiences that were traditionally seen as essential to driving academic intake. And he says UOWD has also been promoting its ‘Pathways’ programmes, where UAE-based students wanting to travel abroad to study can now begin their university education at UOWD and then transfer to University of Wollongong Australia, a leading institution in that country, once restrictions ease.

While campus education remains attractive for both domestic and international students, the Covid-19 lockdown has forced a shift in thinking among all stakeholders – from parents and students to academics and administrators – and we are likely to see many changes ahead. The pandemic will force a change in tertiary education, led by nimble institutions such as UOWD and carrying the rest of the industry into a blended-learning future.

To find out more about University of Wollongong in Dubai, click here.