Courtney Brown and Jamil Salmi

An Unprecedented Challenge

As country after country decrees partial or total lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of universities and colleges closing and switching to e-learning has soared. However, few of these institutions are well prepared for this sudden, disruptive move. A lot of scrambling and improvisation are occurring as administrators, instructors, and students struggle to implement broad-based online learning. The scale of the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented in the lives of nearly everyone involved.

As of April 9, more than a 1.5 million people had been infected worldwide – more than 150 times the number diagnosed with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) during that epidemic nearly 20 years ago. SARS emerged in China in November 2002. Within months, it had spread to 29 countries or territories in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. By the time the global outbreak was contained, the SARS virus had affected 8,096 people worldwide, killing 774.

During SARS’ peak, schools and universities in the three most affected areas of Asia – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – were closed from one to several months. To compensate for these closures, some universities kept their students engaged by establishing or increasing their online presence. This required effective learning-management systems, videoconference facilities, and instructors experienced with e-learning.

Short-Term Effects

This time around, the rest of the world watched for nearly two months as China and a few East Asian countries and territories went into lockdown. Despite repeated warnings from the leader of the World Health Organization, few countries prepared for a possible pandemic. When it became clear COVID-19 was spreading rapidly on a global scale, governments suddenly – finally – showed alarm and began shutting down businesses, schools, and universities. Within a few weeks, about 20,000 higher education institutions had ceased normal operation and sent 200 million students home, with many switching to online classes after only a few days of preparation.

While these campus closures will likely help prevent the spread of the virus within higher education institutions, they have clearly forced colleges and universities to operate in unfamiliar ways and spend significant sums to shift their operations online. Higher education institutions all over the world have suspended international travel and exchange programs and put most research activities on hold. Many are struggling with difficult decisions about how to assess student learning, whether to postpone or cancel final exams, and how to recruit students for the next academic year – especially in countries where national end-of-high school exams have been scratched.

Nor has the move to online education been universally embraced. Argentina’s flagship university, Universidad de Buenos Aires, decided to postpone classes and rearrange the academic calendar rather than switch to online classes, deciding that only in-person courses can guarantee quality. Along the same lines, the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe announced that it would remain closed until further notice. The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education suspended online education together with on-campus activities.

Students are also resisting the digital transition. In Tunisia, the main student union – students in other countries have a stronger say in their educations than do U.S. students – denounced the government’s decision to adopt online education during the COVID-19 crisis. The union labeled the move a discriminatory measure and called for a boycott of online platforms. Similarly, in Chile, students at the country’s main public institution, the University de Chile, and at the private Universidad San Sebastian have initiated online strikes. In the United Kingdom, more than 200,000 students have signed a petition demanding refunds of their tuition payments, essentially claiming that online instruction isn’t what they paid for.

Fairness Dimensions

While the disruptions caused by the pandemic affect both rich and poor countries and upend the lives of every societal group, students from vulnerable groups are hit especially hard. In wealthy societies such as the United States, where most residence halls were shut down – often abruptly, many students from low-income families faced major difficulties. They had problems finding off-campus housing on short notice, lost access to campus-based health care, struggled to pay unexpected living expenses, and felt unprepared for a sudden shift to online studies. In this context, community college students – who are more likely to be people of color, older, have lower family incomes, and care for dependents – are much more vulnerable than those attending four-year institutions. These challenges could lead to large numbers of dropouts by the end of the academic year and far fewer students enrolled in the fall. International students stranded far from home also face economic and emotional hardships.

In poorer countries, students from disadvantaged groups face even greater difficulty. In developing countries with limited internet access and low broadband capacity, opportunities for online learning are likely to be drastically constrained, especially in rural areas. Many students from low-income households – sometimes even faculty members – lack laptops or tablet computers. In addition to digital-divide challenges, colleges and universities in poor nations will likely struggle to rapidly launch quality distance learning programs. Many lack experienced instructional designers, sufficient educational resources, an adequate grasp of the specifics and nuances of online education, and strong institutional capacity to deliver it. The African University Association already has signaled that, among the 700 universities operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, very few are well prepared and sufficiently equipped to deliver their programs online.

In addition, universities in the developing world will need to arrange for alternative learning assessments and exams, which in turn will likely disrupt preparations for next year’s admissions. Students from disadvantaged groups, who often have less access to relevant information, may be affected more by these developments.

Governments Stepping In

It is difficult, at this early stage of the pandemic, to have a comprehensive view of national programs adopted by governments to support affected colleges and universities. Initial indications show the following types of measures are needed at the national level: 1) financial stimulus packages and student loan moratoria, 2) flexibility in quality assurance requirements, and 3) capacity-building initiatives to ease the transition to online learning.

A few countries – Australia, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States for instance – already have approved economic rescue packages that include support for higher education. This will help public colleges and universities weather the crisis by protecting the employment of most administrative and academic staff, boosting student welfare, and helping to pay for the technology that can enable a rapid transition to online education. Also, the Canadian and U.S. governments called for a halt to all student loan repayments for the next six months. This maneuver will provide welcome relief to unemployed graduates and those with limited incomes. Many governments also are providing universities with targeted research funding to help identify effective medicines to treat COVID-19 patients and to develop a vaccine. The Nordic countries are funding research in the social sciences to study and mitigate the social consequences of the pandemic.

The second type of national-level interventions needed are those that allow for greater flexibility in the application of quality assurance criteria. Some examples: Suspending deadlines for accreditation and program registration processes, postponing accreditation visits – or switching to “virtual visits” – because of university closures or travel restrictions, and lifting requirements concerning online education. Indeed, many countries have strict regulations regarding online education. A few even impose additional constraints reflecting a negative perception of distance learning. When Peru’s current higher education law was passed in 2014, for example, it specifically disqualified professors who had obtained their doctoral degrees through online education from becoming faculty deans.

By contrast, oversight bodies in many countries are now relaxing their quality assurance criteria to support the rapid transition to online education. Some have issued recommendations to guide colleges and universities, but the general trend has been to issue blanket approvals of the new approaches and delegate responsibility for establishing quality online programs to the higher education institutions themselves. The governors of several U.S. states – Maine’s Janet Mills among the first – have issued executive orders to release funds without adhering to the usual review requirements as part of an effort to encourage online training of health specialists and other workers deemed essential during the pandemic.

The third type of interventions needed involve capacity building to deliver online education – steps that complement the flexible decision-making described earlier. The government of Ghana, notably, has taken the lead in organizing training activities to support universities in their move to online education, in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Open University.  

Countries also must strengthen broadband capacity to facilitate internet access for all students. This can be done by providing subsidized internet packages for university students and free connections to national research networks for all universities. In poorer countries, there is a great need, in addition, for reinforcing campus network infrastructure. These interventions can have positive effects, but only if governments stop enforcing internet shutdowns and censorship, a growing practice to muzzle political dissent. Governments must also guarantee continuity in power supplies, another major challenge faced by the higher education sector in several countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Institutional Policies

The most urgent task for many colleges and universities has been to alleviate the economic hardships experienced by students from low-income families. To reduce the digital divide between rich and poor students, some institutions have donated or loaned out devices to students and offered them internet bundles to provide access to online resources. Others have been able to provide emergency financial assistance and help students find alternate housing, including host homes.

To ease the transition to online education, one priority has been to offer crash courses – to academics and students alike – in how to use digital platforms and how to apply effective techniques for online learning. Institutions with fully functional teaching and learning services have found themselves better prepared to support their entire academic community in this transition. Colleges and universities should also look for opportunities to reach out to less-prepared institutions in their orbit and create collaborative platforms for sharing what they learn.

Based on testimonies coming from some of the colleges and universities struggling with the sudden shift to online education, three considerations are urgently important for institutions engaged in this transition. First, they must align learning-assessment procedures and criteria with the new online curricular and pedagogical approaches. Several colleges and universities already have moved to a pass/fail approach, eliminating grades for the rest of this academic year. Designing online assessment methods to fit these emerging modes of teaching and learning will take significant effort, but it will help to assure the quality of learning and validity of final assessments.

Second, institutions must establish, increase, or strengthen academic and psychological supports for today’s students. This effort will become ever more crucial as growing numbers of students struggle to adjust to new teaching and learning approaches – not to mention their fears and concerns about the pandemic. Careful reliance on data and predictive analytics can help support staff identify struggling students early on and can also help pinpoint the areas in which these students might require extra support.

Third, all higher education institutions must factor this crisis into their strategic planning, undertaking thorough risk assessments and mitigation processes to anticipate the medium- and long-term consequences of the pandemic – including the expected economic recession. For higher education institutions in poorer countries, the COVID-19 crisis is a moment to activate a few deep partnerships with universities in other countries that are willing to share their resources and experience in this time of emergency, especially in the areas of digital education and collaborative online research.  South-South partnerships with universities and other relevant actors can be particularly rewarding, notably in the area of e-learning. In Africa, many universities could benefit from closer linkages with providers of online education in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tunisia, widely recognized as leaders in this domain on the African continent.

Vultures and Angels: Support from Other Actors

The abrupt, broad-based transition to online education provoked by the pandemic has been a boon for education technology companies, a few of which have shamelessly taken advantage of the crisis to boost their prices or dump flawed products on the market. Fortunately, these companies appear to be a small minority. Many firms, from the education sector and beyond, have shown boundless generosity in support of the thousands of institutions and millions of students left stranded by the pandemic. Academics and students all over the world now have access to free courses in many languages. They can use digital platforms for virtual meetings and videoconferences. They can benefit from free, online tutoring programs. And they can use virtual labs for simulations and experiments. Some telecom companies have offered free or highly subsidized internet packages to students and academics and have exempted sites that contain open educational resources from data charges.

In all countries, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the National and Regional Research and Education Networks have an important role to play in giving colleges and universities access to fast internet and collaborative networks. This follows the tradition of the Network Startup Resource Center, started in 1992 with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which has helped establish such networks in most parts of the world.

Since the beginning of the crisis, companies and philanthropists in many countries have donated money, computers, and tablets to help students adjust to new online learning approaches. In South Africa, a generous donor has just cleared the debts of 300 students at Walter Sisulu University who are expected to graduate this academic year.

Conclusion: The Likely Longer-Term Impact

Awed by their potentially disruptive character, the New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOCs,” referring to the explosion of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses and the growing perception that they could challenge traditional universities or even threaten their very existence. While this prediction proved overblown, one may wonder whether the rapid transition to online learning brought about by the COVID-19 crisis will ultimately transform colleges and universities into digital institutions. In any event, the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to bring about substantial changes in the way higher education institutions operate – in both the short and long term.

The resilience of modern universities has never have been tested as thoroughly as during the current crisis, but not all institutions are being affected in the same ways. The world’s top universities are unlikely to suffer adverse long-term consequences. As predicted by Phillip Altbach and Hans De Wit in a recent article, “… research universities and top-quality institutions that are globally and nationally recognized and have stable income streams, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and elite American private liberal arts colleges and similar institutions worldwide, will recover more rapidly and emerge relatively unscathed from the crisis.”

But for most higher education institutions, especially the private ones that are fully dependent on tuition fees, financial survival will be a serious challenge during the deep recession many economists predict. It’s realistic to expect many private colleges and universities to close their doors for good. Millions of students with limited resources could drop out of higher education altogether, or at least shift to more affordable public institutions. Colleges and universities with high proportions of foreign students also will be vulnerable to fluctuations in the demand.

Institutions would be well advised not to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis whose effects will disappear in a few months. Most colleges and universities failed to heed the lessons of the SARS epidemic. Hopefully, this crisis will serve as a wake-up call to reassess the vulnerabilities of the higher education sector and the challenges of living in a global and interdependent world. If anything, it has shown the importance of contingency planning and risk management, the benefits of supporting innovative delivery methods, and the need for flexibility in learning assessment and admissions requirements.

Will the COVID-19 crisis be remembered as a black-swan event that truly transformed higher education? It’s impossible to predict at this early stage. At the very least, the pandemic represents an ideal opportunity to experiment with novel ways of organizing and delivering the curriculum. Will universities embrace the potential of online education in a more systematic way? Will this crisis push colleges and universities to broadly adopt innovative approaches that have so far been embraced by only a handful of institutions and audacious educators? Will it herald the disappearance of high-stake exams, to be replaced with next-generation assessment methods and tools? To paraphrase the title of a remarkable book on curricular and teaching innovation, one of the most positive consequences of the COVID-19 crisis could be to transform the teaching and learning process with the purpose of “sparking curiosity, igniting passion, and unleashing genius.”

Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that achieving fairness in higher learning for racial and ethnic minorities and those from low-income families remains one of the biggest challenges. These students are likely to suffer most because of the COVID-19 crisis. The next six months will be a critical test of the capacity of the international community, national governments, and higher education institutions to act swiftly and effectively in order to avoid a growing gap between rich and poor countries, between well-endowed and resource-limited institutions, and among the students themselves. It will be crucial to avoid choices that reinforce or deepen existing disparities. Instead, we must search together for solutions that create opportunity for all, especially people who have faced barriers to the economic success and social mobility that higher learning can bring. In a time of growing distrust towards evidence-based expertise, it will be equally critical to implement consensus-based solutions that transcend ideologies and reflect scientific results.

This blog was originally published on the Lumina Foundation site.

The New Equity Study

A 2018 study sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, All Around The World, reviewed the policy commitments of national governments to promote equal opportunities in access and success in higher education.  The study found that, with the exception of a few fragile states recovering from a natural catastrophe or a major political crisis, equity is a priority theme in the higher education discourse of most governments. 

Leading up to this year’s World Access to Higher Education Day (26 November 2019), we undertook a follow-up study to explore which equity promotion policies seem most successful, and to assess under what circumstances some policies work better than others.  The new study focused on a small sample of countries from all corners of the planet: Australia, Austria, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam.

The country case studies revealed the following strengths:

  • Australia is one of the most advanced countries in terms of comprehensive equity policies;
  • Austria is a leader when it comes to gender policies and support for refugees;
  • Colombia has been a pioneer in student loans and retention policies;
  • South Africa is making strides in addressing long-lasting inequalities from years of apartheid; and
  • Vietnam attends many equity target groups but needs to invest more public resources to implement its comprehensive equity plan.

Key Findings at the National Level

We found that there is a dearth of rigorous impact studies evaluating equity policies in a rigorous manner.  We also concluded that there is insufficient relevant data to measure disparities and monitor the effects and consequences of equity policies. 

The country studies do confirm one of the major findings of the 2018 Lumina study: to achieve strong equity results there needs to be a high degree of alignment among leadership goals, policy goals, policy instruments, and allocated resources. It is particularly crucial to have enough resources to implement the national equity agenda effectively. 

The country experiences also showed us that there is essential to have continuity in equity policies.  Through the case studies we saw how politics often get in the way of sound policies.  To improve access and success for under-represented groups in the long run, it is important to stay the course and carry on with both financial and non-monetary equity policies in a consistent way, independently of who is in government. 

Additionally, we noted that Austria is the only country surveyed with equity promotion policies influenced and strengthened by supranational considerations. The Bologna process and the social dimension agenda promoted by the European Commission have both strengthened Austria’s equity agenda in higher education.

Finally, the case studies confirm the interaction of four structural elements that strongly influence the scope and magnitude of disparities in higher education:

  • The secondary education system and the extent of streaming between general education and vocational training within high schools,
  • The level of selectivity in the admission policies of universities,
  • The degree of institutional differentiation of higher education systems, and
  • The availability of financial aid for students from disadvantaged groups. 

Key Findings at the Institutional Level

In the five case studies, we also reviewed institutional approaches and experiences to promoting access and success for under-served students.  A survey of several universities in each country has revealed a number of good practices worth reporting. 

  • Institutions should have a clear strategy that can either take the form of a stand-alone document or be embedded in the institutional strategic plan.  The University of Wollongong in Australia and Uniminuto in Colombia are good examples of this. Both have put a strong emphasis on equity as part of their core mission. 
  • Having a department responsible for all equity-related activities under the direct authority of an institutional leader is also an important factor of success. 
  • In low- and middle-income countries, innovative partnerships between higher education institutions, local authorities, and local businesses can generate additional resources to finance scholarships for needy student. 
  • Higher education institutions—and even governments—can share and model successful policies and programs initiated by individual universities.  This happened, for example, with the successful mentorship program set up by the Universidad del Valle in Colombia.
  • In addition to ensuring greater access, elite public or private universities that want to be more inclusive should strive to provide a welcoming environment for first-generation students, who often feel uncomfortable within an elitist institutional culture.

Next Steps

Moving forward, it will be important to put emphasis on four aspects:

  • impact studies to measure which interventions and combinations of interventions are most effective; 
  • strong information systems to identify all equity groups and measure their progress in terms of access and graduation;
  • identification and evaluation of effective policies to improve gender balance in STEM institutions and programs, in the top academic positions, and in university leadership functions.
  • definition of the needs of students with disability, provision of sufficient resources, and empowerment of higher education institutions to place this dimension much higher on their equity agenda.

This week, the world of education lost one of its finest champions: Gwang-Jo Kim.   Korean by birth, citizen of the world by choice, Gwang-Jo was an educator with a passion.   He believed that schools should be happy places where children would learn to live with tolerance and peace. Gwang-Jo’s last position as director of the UNESCO regional office for Asia and the Pacific gave him an effective platform to fight tirelessly on behalf of equal opportunities in education at all levels and promote his dreams of social justice and peaceful coexistence.

I met Gwang-Jo seventeen years ago, when he worked at the World Bank on a two-year secondment from the Korean Ministry of Education. Gwang-Jo’s knowledge and experience were so rich and relevant that he was invited to stay on for a third year. I remember how all the people he worked with in developing countries appreciated his intellectual generosity and his modesty in sharing his knowledge. Gwang-Jo was wise, funny and curious. Everyone was keen to benefit from his advice and learn from his experience. And his love of music was catchy. I remember how, during a visit to Colombia, he astonished everyone by singing, in Spanish, a popular Latin American song. As many people were finding it difficult to pronounce his Korean name, he told them in his usual down-to-earth manner “just call me Juancho!”

After the World Bank, Gwang-Jo became vice-minister of education in his country. But no matter how successful he was in his professional life, moving from government to the top regional UNESCO position, he always remained the same committed professional and kind friend. He was also the most generous host, as many of us experienced in Seoul and Bangkok. I was privileged to accompany him on a visit to his native town, Gyeongju, where we shared the best seafood meal I ever ate and watched the sun rise from the sea in a moving moment of silent sharing.

I shall miss you, Gwang-Jo, my colleague for a few years and my friend forever.  You are an inspiration to all of us who knew you.

Professor Fernando Reimers wrote a beautiful testimony about Gwang-Jo’s life and impact, which I reproduce below with his permission. No one could have described better how Gwang-Jo’s gentleness, generosity and humility touched the heart and mind of everyone he met.

Post by Fernando Reimers – Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education Harvard Graduate School of Education

I met Gwang-Jo Kim when we were both students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than three decades ago. I learned a great deal from his work ethic, his extraordinary determination and focus on his studies, and from his intellect. We were brought together by our shared broken English, our shared doctoral advisor, Professor Russell Davis, the many courses we took together, and the fact that we both came from far away, were living extremely frugally out of necessity more than disposition, and did a number of poorly paid student jobs, such as painting student dorms, to pay our bills. Gwang Jo’s hopeful spirit and humor lifted me up on more than one occasion from the pressing burden of having to write many research papers in a language that was very much foreign to us then, during the short days of winter, with little money in our pockets. Our conversations as we painted those rooms or crossed paths in the library helped to keep me focused on the long term, on the better world we were going to build as a result of our efforts to advance educational opportunity. Amidst those demands and pressures we lived as graduate students, Gwang-Jo made time to be with his family by sleeping few hours.

Over the last three decades I had the pleasure of seeing Gwang-Jo pursue an extraordinarily successful career in international development, and achieve the dreams he had discussed as we painted the student rooms in the Cronkhite Graduate Center at Harvard. He became a deputy secretary of education of South Korea, a senior education official at the World Bank, and eventually Director of UNESCO’s office for Asia and the Pacific. These were remarkable accomplishments for a man who had come from the most humble beginnings, accomplishments he had earned purely as a result of talent and effort. But to Gwang Jo, GJ as his colleagues in Unesco Bangkok called him, these accomplishments were important only because they provided him a platform from which to serve others, especially children. It was a joy to watch his sophistication in engaging ministers, premiers, members of royalty, and his colleagues in the international development community, and in getting them to collaborate to produce valuable results for the education of children.

Gwang-Jo Kim represented the best of UNESCO in his commitment to the enduring mission of the organization: the advancement of human rights and the promotion of peace and sustainability through education. His capacity for innovation and his imagination to bring people together on behalf of bigger purposes were inspiring, to his staff, to me and to my students, as was his resiliency and determination to see projects through until they achieved results.

With grace, Gwang-Jo steered UNESCO towards meaningful and relevant work even as financial resources dwindled. He brought together often all ministers of education of Asia and the Pacific to examine how to create jobs for youth, how to promote entrepreneurship, how to build a culture of innovation. He was passionate about helping to rebuild education in regions in conflict, and had a firm belief in the power of schools to help societies heal from the wounds of violence. In his last years, he was focused on finding ways to work with governments so they could support public schools to more effectively promote socio-emotional development and happiness.

Gwang-Jo led one of the jewels of UNESCO with great humility. At gatherings of Ministers of Education, I saw him bring his guitar, and conclude a full day of meaningful and productive discussions, with a performance in which he sang songs in several languages. He had learned to play the guitar, and to fly kytes, while serving as Director of UNESCO in Bangkok. He explained it helped him put life in perspective and keep balance. He advised me to pick up a hobby years ago, as I visited him and his wife in their apartment in Bangkok; with the demeanor of an older brother he explained that a hobby would help me be ready for the changes life would bring as I aged. The next time I saw him, when he took a detour on a trip to the UN to come speak to my students at Harvard, I showed him a garden I had started and he seemed pleased I had followed his advice.

At our last conversation in person, during a visit I paid him in Thailand, he shared plans he was just sketching for life after retiring from UNESCO, to return to the village of his roots, perhaps to teach, to continue to give of himself to the children, to educate the next generation so we could have a better world. Our last exchange, three weeks ago, was over an innovation award he had helped establish to recognize programs to strengthen the capacities of teachers in Asia. He confirmed he would be retiring at the end of August, as he had planned to do some time ago. ‘I will soon update you about my retired life.’ he wrote. I was hopeful we could persuade him to come and do some teaching to our students, as I know how good he would have been to them.

Gwang-Jo made UNESCO a much better institution than he found it, during a time of severe financial constrains and complicated geo-politics. He helped advance the education of children through his service to the government of his country and as an international development leader, and he did it with distinction and effectiveness. He did more than his share to improve the world, with the same humble, generous and humorous spirit that I remember from our days as graduate students at Harvard, over three decades ago. He reached great heights in his profession while never forgetting his humble roots.

My heart goes out to his widow and his two sons, to his colleagues and friends. I know he will always be with us in our memories.

Thank you Gwang-Jo, for all you taught me and so many others, for your example, for your leadership, for your love and relentless work for Peace.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Higher education leaders in England, France and Italy often take pride in claiming that their country is the seat of the oldest university in the modern world.  Indeed, Oxford University was set up in 1167, the Sorbonne was created in 1160, and the University of Bologna began to operate in 1088.  But historians have established that, in reality, the oldest university still functioning in modern times is the Qarawyyin in Fes, Morocco, which started as an institution of learning as early as 859.  The Arab world can also take pride in the contribution of other prestigious universities, such as Ez-Zeituna in Tunis, Al-Nizamiyya in Iraq or Al Azhar in Egypt.  More recently, the University of Cairo was hailed as the lighthouse of the Arab intelligentsia for many decades during the twentieth century.

Today, however, the higher education systems of the Arab world face important challenges.  While most countries in the region have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of universities and seen a tremendous increase in student numbers, quality and relevance are sources of serious concern.  Lack of selection and insufficient budgetary resources have resulted, in many cases, in situations of over-crowding and inadequate facilities.  The University of Cairo has more than 250,000 students.  After a recent merger, the University of Rabat enrolls close to 100,000 students.  Many universities in the region operate with a traditional curriculum and outdated pedagogical practices, resulting in high dropout rates—sometimes half of an entire student generation—.  According to Al-Fanar Media, more than half of Jordanian universities recently failed a national proficiency exam held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  Finding a job remains a difficult adventure for large numbers of graduates throughout the region.  In fact, graduate unemployment was one of the triggers of the Arab spring, most notably in Tunisia.

In short, the achievements of the Arab higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the economic weight and the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Arab systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, they suffer from relatively high levels of graduate unemployment, and are characterized by inadequate governance arrangements.  Many public universities in the Arab region are driven by interest groups who are resistant to change, they suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  Some universities are governed by large scientific councils with close to 100 members, which makes it difficult if not impossible to take innovative initiatives.

The Arab world represents 5.8% percent of the world population and produces 4.5% percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 0.08% percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking.  The poor results of a large country like Egypt—the 15th most populated nation of the world—are striking in contrast to the impressive performance of a small country such as the Netherlands, which places four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking.  The tiny territory of Hong Kong has more universities in the Shanghai ranking than all Arab countries considered together.

At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge several positive developments in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, stands out for the rapid progress of its top universities in recent years.  Four Saudi universities are present among the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, two of them appearing in the 150 to 200 group.  It is also the only Arab country included among the top fifty higher education systems ranked by the international consortium Universitas 21 in the annual assessment prepared on its behalf by the University of Melbourne.  Saudi Arabia was ranked number 28 in 2015, up two spots compared to 2014.  Also, in countries as diverse as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, a few private universities have emerged as centers of innovative curricular and pedagogical practices.  KAUST, the youngest public university established in Saudi Arabia, is on its way to becoming rapidly a scientific powerhouse.  But these outstanding examples remain the exception, not the rule.

If universities in the Arab world are to see better days, two key developments are necessary.  First, following the recent examples of a few Gulf States, each nation ought to formulate a comprehensive and audacious vision of the future role of higher education, and translate it into a strategic plan spelling out the concrete reforms, investments and actions needed to implement the vision.  Fostering an institutionally differentiated system, composed not only of research-intensive universities but also good quality teaching universities and community colleges with a professional focus, is important to offer relevant opportunities to the rapidly growing youth population of these countries, and to produce the range of professionals and technicians that the economy needs.  In that context, the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries whose public universities are starved for resources must significantly increase public investment in higher education and research.

Second, the higher education systems in the Arab world need to build their capacity to design and implement deep reforms in a consensual mode, in order to modernize governance structures and processes overall, allowing for increased institutional autonomy and full academic freedom.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and implemented in a spirit of transparency and objectivity, on the basis of a realistic assessment of existing needs, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  It would make such a difference if the Arab countries would start showing as much enthusiasm for the transformation and modernization of their higher education systems as for the results of their national soccer teams on their way to the next World Cup qualifier match!

First published by WISE  Also available in Arabic.

Seen from an international perspective, the higher education systems of the Ibero-American countries present fascinating contrasts.  They can take pride in the very rapid enrollment increases in recent years and significant efforts to improve the quality of learning and research in a growing number of universities.  Several countries, especially in Latin America, demonstrate a high degree of institutional differentiation with a wide range of public and private universities and non-university tertiary institutions—from technical institutes to technology-focused universities, from small professional schools to large research universities.

Furthermore, the Latin American higher education systems boast some innovative aspects linked to policies to promote equity, the assessment of learning outcomes, and the monitoring of graduates in the labor market, something found in only a few countries worldwide.  Following the example of ICETEX in Colombia—the first student loan agency in the world— several countries now rely on this mechanism to improve opportunities for students from disadvantaged groups, most significantly in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.  Other initiatives to make high quality universities more inclusive are also worth mentioning, such as the affirmative action program at UNICAMP in Brazil, bridge schemes to bring talented low income high school graduates into public universities in Chile, and the Colombian private university, Uniminuto, established with the mission of offering a high quality education to students from the most marginalized urban and rural socioeconomic sectors.  Brazil and Colombia are among the few developing countries with a national assessment system to measure student learning outcomes.  Finally, Chile and Colombia have been pioneers in the development of labor market observatories—Mi Futuro and Graduados Colombia, respectively—to follow the professional trajectories of university graduates.

In spite of these positive features, the achievements of the Ibero-American higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the current economic heft or the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Ibero-American systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, suffer from relatively lower levels of public funding, and are characterized by inadequate governance.

Research funding in Latin America ranges from 0.3 to 1 percent of GDP, while the Nordic countries invest between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP.  In terms of governance, universities in the Ibero-American region, especially the public ones, are subject to the influence of interest groups resistant to change, suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  What are the concrete results of these differences?

Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, while its universities account for only 2.2 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking, and 2.6 percent of the top 500 universities in the Leiden ranking that focuses on publications and their impact.  The poor performance of large countries such as Brazil and Mexico—the sixth and tenth economies of the world, respectively—is particularly striking in contrast with the impressive results of smaller countries like the Netherlands, that has four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, or Israel with three universities. The tiny territory of Hong Kong places as many universities in the Shanghai ranking as the Brazilian giant!

In Europe, the two Ibero-American countries, Spain and Portugal, also fail to achieve good outcomes.  A recent study commissioned by the Spanish government and undertaken by a group of distinguished academics deplores the absence of Spanish universities of excellence and the low scientific production of the country.  Not one Spanish or Portuguese university appears among the top 200 in the Shanghai ranking, in contrast with large European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and even smaller nations like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

For the situation to change for the better in the Ibero-American countries, two key factors appear to be missing.  First, each of these countries needs to elaborate a comprehensive and audacious national vision of the future role of higher education, translating that vision into a strategic plan with adequate investment and spelling out the concrete reforms and actions needed for its implementation.

Second, Ibero-American nations need to build their capacity to design and implement deep and consensual reforms with significant increases in public spending for higher education and research while modernizing governance structures and administrative processes.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and accepted as long-term state policies, rather than prepared and identified as the proposal of a specific government and limited by the typically short electoral horizon.  It would make such a difference if the Ibero-American countries would show as much enthusiasm for the transformation of their higher education system as for the results of their national soccer teams!

This blog entry was first published by Inside Higher Education on 11 January 2015

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Ferdinand Magellan (1520)

 For several decades, traditional human capital analysis challenged the need for public support of higher education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers.  Many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, influenced by this argument, focused their support on basic education rather than investing in the expansion and improvement of higher education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the need to go beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the value of higher education as an important pillar of sustainable development.  By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis fails to capture broad social benefits accruing to society, that are important to recognize and measure.  These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in higher education and research, as a key pillar to equip developing countries with the knowledge and qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth.  Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from several donor agencies, the report had an important impact at three levels.  First, it helped turn around donor policies in favor of greater attention to higher education in partner countries.  Second, it unleashed many positive reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves.  Third it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Almost fifteen years later, the world of higher education has changed significantly.  Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector.  In Europe, the Bologna process has led to the creation of a “higher education space” facilitating the circulation of students and academics.  Asian nations have been at the forefront of efforts to place higher education at the center of their economic development strategies.

Higher education finds itself at another crossroad today, as national systems seem to be pulled in several directions by a combination of factors bringing about both opportunities and challenges at the same time.  The forces exercising new pressures on higher education can be divided into three groups: crisis factors, stimulation factors, and rupture factors.

The crisis factors are the direct results of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2008.  Many governments have significantly cut their higher education budget while, at the same time, households have fewer resources to allocate to education expenditures.  Furthermore, in many countries, the slowing down of the economy has led to rising graduate unemployment.

Compounding these elements of crisis are rupture factors such as those pointed out in a 2013 report proposing the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting how higher education institutions will be conducting their teaching and research activities in the future.  Among these rupture factors are (i) technological innovations such as flipped classrooms and other strategies for more interactive learning, (ii) mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, (iii) increased competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and (iv) new accountability modalities like the global rankings, that allow for different kinds of comparisons of the performance of universities across all continents.

Finally, higher education institutions are exposed to stimulation factors in the few countries that, notwithstanding the financial crisis, have continued to give priority to the development of their knowledge economy by protecting their higher education budget.  Several governments have even launched “excellence initiatives” translating into a large influx of additional resources for their nation’s leading universities—for example China, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia and South Korea—, often under the influence of the global rankings.

How these three sets of factors play out in each country determines the new “perils” and “promises” likely to shape the development of higher education in the years to come.


This article was first published in the Bulletin (Issue 182, July 2014), the magazine of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

Guest blogger Laura Howard, EAIE vice-president

At the October 2013 Conference of the Americas on internationalization (CAIE), the audience listening to the plenary moderated by Francisco Marmolejo, Coordinator of Higher Education at the World Bank, was intrigued when Jamil Salmi, specialist in higher education, began his answer to the question of why Latin American universities are not well represented in rankings by talking about football.

So what is the connection?

Salmi pointed out that the world’s top football teams have international players. Many also have international coaches or managers (Ancelotti in Real Madrid, Mourinho in Chelsea), even in the case of the national selection of some countries (Capello as the England coach). In their search for the best players, and for the right trainer, they look beyond their own backyard.

In Latin American universities, however, it is seldom the case that a university is led by a rector/president from another country – in some cases it is even expressly prohibited by law. This reflects a mindset that does not include a global perspective and therefore does not consider international candidates. It asks for a change of attitude, the willingness to look beyond national borders in the search for quality and excellence, to find the person with the right skill set. And this need is not limited to Latin America. This is not to say, by any means, that excellent candidates cannot be found on home ground. However, a university that appoints a rector from another country is giving a clear signal that it is embracing internationalisation, going beyond the search for international students and academic staff right to the institution’s strategic centre, preparing itself internally for change. This comment brought to mind two thoughts:

The International Relations Office: the Messi and the Torres of the university

The first one concerns an issue that has been discussed by many EAIE members over the years. The International Relations Offices of our universities are often home to international staff, usually in a much higher percentage than in other areas of university administration and management. It would be interesting to explore and attempt to measure the specific contribution made by these professionals to the internationalisation process of their universities. They are the international players in our teams: the Messi and the Torres. And the added value they provide can serve as an example, as many of their skills would be transferrable to other aspects of university administration in an institution that embraces comprehensive internationalisation.

Mobility in football vs. higher education

The second concerns another advantage enjoyed by football teams – the ease with which international players can cross borders. Entry visas do not appear to be an issue when a team wants to sign up a new international player; they often enjoy special fiscal privileges and in some cases even citizenship to the country which wants them on their team is granted. Yet in the field of education, most higher education institutions struggle to get the necessary support for a coherent inter-ministerial policy which facilitates the entry of international students and staff – who as well as being a source of finance can contribute to the internationalisation process, and can help to improve the institution’s place in the rankings.

It seems that the internationalisation of football is of greater strategic importance in many countries than the internationalisation of higher education. Lots of food for thought. What is the situation in your country?

PS.  Update from Jamil Salmi: at the 2014 soccer world cup in Brazil, half of the 32 competing teams have a foreign coach…

PS2. This blog was first posted on the EAIE website on 28 October 2013.