Higher and tertiary education are socially and economically central to most countries, enrolling more than 75 per cent of the young adult age group in Europe and North America, and over 50 per cent in East Asia and Latin America. The COVID-19 pandemic has larger effects in education than almost any other sector, cutting normal output by 90 per cent (UK Office for Budget Responsibility) with higher education and research activities taking place only in online form. With travel restricted and asynchronous health risks in different countries, international education is at a standstill except in distance learning form.
While higher education communities have come together in the face of this once in a lifetime challenge, there is tremendous support and caring for people in the sector, and many institutions have developed remarkable online programmes at speed, education is about the cohort experience and interaction in depth where it generates a broad set of intellectual, work-related and lifetime skills. The face to face experience is valued by students. Yet in most countries it will be months before institutions and research laboratories can be reopened – and if the pandemic recurs at scale higher education could be disrupted for most of 2021, raising questions about tuition fees in those systems where students and families share the cost. Students from social groups already under-represented in higher education, often with less access to ICT infrastructure and greater dependence on face to face support, have been especially hard hit. The next batch of graduates face a labour market flattened by recession, which again places the value of higher education participation in doubt. With government funding cuts almost inevitable in many countries, institutions will be under severe financial pressure, especially those that are financially dependent on onsite international students. The pandemic may also bring about lasting changes in forms of delivery, administration, meetings and international travel and collaboration in higher education; and in some countries, in the balance between academic degrees and vocationally specific shorter-form programmes.
The webinar brings together a panel of leading international experts on higher education, from UK/Europe and East Asia, zones in which the pandemic is equally transformative but has played out very differently in society and in higher education – and a participant audience from across the world.