Foreign Policy

Will Faculties and Universities Ever Return to Regular?

Millions of schoolchildren and university students are back in class, virtually or otherwise. Schools are reopening with strict coronavirus rules. There are many models—from Denmark’s “class bubbles” that limit interaction with the rest of the school to hybrid curricula that are only partially in-person, to continued remote learning with all its problems for distracted students and stressed-out parents. Some schools in Europe and East Asia seem to have successfully relaxed social-distancing rules; others have reopened only to close again as infections spiked.

Universities are struggling even more than schools. Dorms and student socializing seem to be natural habitats for the virus. Private universities that are dependent on tuition payments could suffer if parents decide that remote learning isn’t worth the exorbitant cost—or if Chinese students paying full tuition don’t come back. One thing is certain: COVID-19 has unleashed a revolution in digital learning that could disrupt academia forever.

To help us think about the pandemic’s effects on education going forward, Foreign Policy asked nine prominent thinkers to look into their crystal balls.

Technology Will Finally Disrupt Complacent Universities

by Michael D. Smith, a professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University

The university as we know it will survive—but not with anything like the power it enjoyed before COVID-19.

For centuries, a university’s power derived from its ability to control access to scarce classroom seats, scarce faculty experts, and scarce job market credentials. The pandemic has forced the academy to adopt digital technologies that will make these resources abundant by letting students study whenever, wherever, and whatever they desire from faculty experts located around the globe. At the same time, new online tools allow students to demonstrate their skills with a specificity and clarity that college diplomas and transcripts can’t match.

Today, many in academia see this as a threat to our way of doing business. And they’re right: The changes set off and accelerated by the pandemic are going to look a lot like the painful changes we’ve seen in other disrupted industries, such as retail, travel, media, and entertainment, where overconfident firms with overpriced products were decimated by new digital competitors. For too long, universities have been comfortably walled off from these pressures.

Instead of panicking, however, educators need to embrace these changes as an opportunity to fulfill their core mission: creating opportunities for as many students as possible to discover and develop their unique gifts and talents, and use those gifts and talents to make a difference in the world.

Return to In-Person Schooling as Quickly as Possible

by Ludger Woessmann, an economics professor at the University of Munich and the director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education

As parents of children affected by school closures will know, remote learning has not been a good substitute for in-person instruction. When we recently surveyed over 1,000 parents of German school children, we found that the time students spent on school and homework was halved from 7.4 to only 3.6 hours per day, while the time spent watching TV, playing computer games, or using mobile phones increased to 5.2 hours per day. More than a third of students only studied two hours or less.

Contrary to the widespread belief that better-educated parents were better able to provide a supportive home learning environment, the drop in learning time was just as steep for their children as for those of less-educated parents. The real difference was that students who were already weak performers in school—regardless of socioeconomic background—switched even more time from learning to gaming than their stronger peers. We also found that girls coped better with distance learning than boys.

School closures will have real costs in the long term. So far, the average student missed the equivalent of one-third of a year of learning and can expect their future income to be reduced by about 3 percent; this cohort’s lower education attainment means that the economy as a whole will forgo 1.5 percent of GDP.

There are two urgent lessons in this. First, we must do everything we can to return to in-person schooling as quickly as possible—with the necessary precautions. Where that’s not possible, there must be a full schedule of live online instruction—merely sending out homework by email has clearly failed for too many students. Second, we must initiate a major effort to remediate students’ learning losses, or their future development will be seriously harmed.

Schools Can Reopen Safely, but Only With Strict Protocols and Plans

by Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health

In the United States and other countries, schools have started going back to in-person instruction. From these experiences, we can draw several key lessons.

First: The level of illness in communities in which students and staff live matters. If there are high or increasing numbers of infections in school feeder communities, students or staff may be infected and bring that infection to school. Communities with a high level of transmission may have to close other high-risk establishments, such as restaurants and bars, in order to bring case numbers down enough for schools to open.

Second: Safety protocols are important. Even in communities where the level of illness is low, there is still a chance that someone may be infected, not know it, and come to school. That’s where interventions such as requiring masks, maintaining physical distance between students and staff, improving ventilation, and staying outdoors as much as possible play a role.

Third: It is important that schools plan for cases to occur and be ready to respond. Schools should have clear plans defining the threshold for closing, how long students remain at home, and—crucially—triggers for reopening. It can be quite helpful to create bubbles, which are fixed groups of students and staff within the school who only interact with each other. If someone in the bubble turns out to be infected, the number of people who have possibly been exposed is limited. This system—first introduced at scale when Denmark reopened its schools in May—also aids contact-tracing efforts.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that what happens outside the classroom can undermine even the best safety plans. Evidence from school reopenings around the world has shown that social and other gatherings outside of schools are an important path of transmission. We need to be realistic and plan for people to not fully adhere to social distancing recommendations outside of school.

Developing Countries Have Been Hit Especially Hard

by Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian studies and the director of Asia programs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies

There is little doubt that COVID-19 will have severe impacts on vulnerable populations—the only question is the duration and intensity. With about 260 million children in school and nearly 40 million students in higher education, India was already facing daunting challenges in educating its population to participate in the 21st-century economy. A statutory right to schooling to age 14 was only introduced in 2009. However, the Indian education system continues to be plagued by poor leaning outcomes and high dropout rates. Enrollment in grades 11 to 12 is still just 57 percent.

Against this backdrop, the disruptions stemming from COVID-19 are bound to lead to Indian students falling even further behind. Replacing in-person learning with online teaching is challenging enough in rich countries; in developing nations such as India, there are even bigger obstacles. Despite a massive increase in internet and smartphone penetration in recent years, about 70 percent of Indians in rural areas—where almost two-thirds of the country’s 1.3 billion people live—still lack digital access, making in-person education vital.

Private-sector innovation is driving sharp increases in internet use, and the government has launched an ambitious project to connect India’s more than 600,000 villages to a fiber-optic network within the next three years. But these developments will be too late for today’s crisis. While greater use of TV and radio for teaching purposes might fill some of the learning gaps, it is all but certain that the education clock has been turned back for hundreds of millions of young Indians.

The End of International Education?

by Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and an associate professor at the University of Sydney

The pandemic has put an abrupt brake on international student mobility. When the time comes to get things started again, the deteriorating relationship between China and the West isn’t going to help. China accounts for nearly 20 percent of the world’s outbound international students, and unlike most Western students who might do a semester or two abroad to enrich their undergraduate experience, Chinese international students tend to do entire degrees. That has made tuition-paying students from China a major revenue source for institutions such as the University of Sydney (where 31 percent of the entire student body comes from China), the University of Toronto (around 14 percent), and the University of Illinois (around 11 percent).

Whether or not Chinese students will return in similar numbers after the crisis is anyone’s guess. Whether or not China will let them is another issue entirely. Due to the lingering effects of its one-child policy, China is now experiencing shrinking numbers of high school graduates. Following in the footsteps of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, it faces a future of empty classrooms and bankrupt universities. Compound that by China’s need to preserve foreign currency in order to maintain the value of the yuan, and all the incentives are aligned for China to reduce student mobility.

China will continue to be happy for its graduate students to receive elite scientific training and access to cutting-edge technology abroad. But it is increasingly likely to keep its impressionable young undergraduates at home. For Western universities dependent on their tuition, that could turn into an existential challenge.

To Overcome the Pandemic, Build a Better Education System

by Arne Duncan, a former U.S. secretary of education in the Barack Obama administration and currently a managing partner at Emerson Collective

The mismanagement of this pandemic by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has led to the worst public health crisis in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and chaos in the U.S. education system. But the long-term effects of this pandemic on American students are up to us. We must act quickly—not only to overcome the immediate challenges exposed and exacerbated by this crisis, but also to rebuild the education system so it delivers better results for all our kids. Here are three ways to do that:

First, we must invest in schools in low-income communities to prevent disproportionate funding and staffing cuts from setting back students in these communities for many years to come.

Second, given the current need for remote education, every student and teacher must receive the resources and support they need to learn and teach online. This requires closing the digital divide that widens the inequities between the haves and have-nots.

And third, we should urgently create a national tutoring initiative. The U.S. federal government, in partnership with the private sector, should mobilize millions of college students, recent graduates, and retirees to serve as tutors for students who need to make up lost learning time.

These are just a few proposals, and more are needed. But if we act quickly, get this virus under control, and make the right investments, we can not only mitigate the worst effects of this pandemic on our students but also unlock new opportunities for students—now, and for years to come.

COVID-19 Has Amplified Inequality in Education

by Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

At the peak of the pandemic, 1.5 billion students were locked out of their schools. Despite efforts at remote teaching, these students experienced significant learning losses. That is bad enough— yet some of the reopening strategies being implemented today will make these students’ learning losses even greater. Together, these losses will follow students into the labor market, and both students and their societies will feel the adverse economic results.

While it is hard to predict exactly how school closures will affect students’ future development, past research gives us some ideas on the effect of school attendance on students’ later chances on the labor market and a country’s economic development. The economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann recently looked at the effects of pandemic-related school closures on students in first through 12th grade. Estimating that their learning losses so far are equivalent to missing one-third of a school year on average and assuming that schools return to normal this fall, they project long-run economic costs ranging from $504 billion in South Africa to $14.2 trillion in the United States to $15.5 trillion in China. If the disruption continues into the new school year, as is already the case in many countries, these losses will grow proportionately.

The most troubling aspect is that the pandemic has amplified the many inequities in our education systems—including unequal access to the computers and broadband internet needed for online education, the widespread lack of supportive home environments for learning, and our failure to attract talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. Children from privileged backgrounds not only have strong support from their parents to help them focus on learning, but they also have found their way around closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities such as private tutors and so-called learning pods. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds have remained shut out when their schools shut down and are unlikely to close the widening gap.

Now More Than Ever, Jobs Must Come First

by Mona Mourshed, the founding CEO of Generation

The prospects for graduates have radically worsened. Already, an estimated 400 million people have lost their jobs around the world, joining the 200 million who were already unemployed.

That makes the transition from education to employment even more unreliable than it has already been. Traditionally, it is only at the end of their education that students—sometimes with help from their learning institutions—search for job opportunities. For many, the predictable consequence is unemployment or underemployment, forgone income, and disillusionment with education.

The pandemic will force universities, vocational colleges, providers of professional training, and other postsecondary institutions to flip the sequence. People need jobs now, and they won’t be willing to invest in education without that promise. They will demand programs with the express purpose of preparing graduates to enter jobs. Key ingredients include modular and profession-specific program design, as well as a clear understanding of where the jobs are in a rapidly shifting economy. The immediate need for millions of people to find employment and earn an income means that program length will have to be measured in weeks rather than years. It also means that programs should be held accountable for delivering employment outcomes.

There is good news in this. This transformation could give us the opportunity to rebuild education systems to actually yield employment, financial well-being, and personal dignity.

Higher Education Will Be All Right—After the Disaster

by Dick Startz, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara

COVID-19 is a short-term financial disaster for colleges and universities. Long-term? Not so much—although risks do exist.

In the first half of 2020, revenue from room and board, campus bookstores, athletic tickets, and the like plummeted. Much more important is how many tuition-paying students actually show up this semester. Especially at public colleges, how many high-tuition-paying out-of-state and international students will be missing this year? And even as revenue is lost, switching to online teaching requires significant investment in equipment, cloud services, and tech support.

This approaches a crisis for most schools. Some smaller colleges that were already teetering on the edge of insolvency are going to go under.

In the longer run, nothing much will change about desires for higher education—so demand will return to normal. Nothing much will change about the cost of delivering higher education—so supply will return to normal. Online instruction might grow as a niche product, but for most purposes human contact is superior. In a few years, college finances should be back to their usual state of at least getting by.

But there are two threats for higher education in the United States. In the Great Recession, U.S. states drastically reduced financial support for higher education—and that support never recovered. If this happens again, public universities will have a permanent problem. In the last decade, colleges have adjusted in part by seeking out high-paying international students. This is the second risk: If international students shift to schools in Australia and Europe because of U.S. immigration restrictions, so will their tuition payments, which have subsidized American students.

There is certainly trouble today—and probably for a bit longer. But long-term consequences can be avoided if state governments return to supporting higher education, and if the U.S. federal government returns to the country’s traditional welcoming attitude toward foreign students.

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