Although it is impossible to forecast the future of higher education in the post COVID-19 age with any accuracy, there is little doubt that the pandemic’s impact on higher education worldwide will be significant.
As suggested by the results from surveys by QS, Studyportals Education.com and the European Association for International Education, and reports from individual countries and experts, some new trends have emerged.
Despite differences in the degree and scale of the coronavirus’ impact across regions and countries, it is likely that the pandemic will shape the future of higher education in the following ways.
First, now that its impact on the internationalisation of higher education, especially the cross-border movement of students, academics and scholars, seems likely to be more profound than on any other aspect of higher education, it is fairly clear that there will be a big fall in the number of international students and scholars globally.
This will have a far-reaching impact on those countries in which universities and colleges predominantly rely on charging tuition fees from inbound international students. The universities and colleges in these countries will have to generate funding through other channels to survive.
Typical countries include Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and South Korea.
More importantly, it is highly possible that the role played by inbound international students in the finances of individual higher education institutions and their contribution to the national economy of host countries will become less important and indispensable than it has been until now.
Funding and accountability
Second, funding constraints due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic will result in most governments cutting their higher education funding and restricting their budget to teaching and research activities with the main focus being on enhancing national strengths, but individual universities and colleges will be asked to accomplish more with less funding and make governance arrangements become more efficient, effective, transparent and accountable.
Higher education in countries which are unable to recover from the severe impact of COVID-19 will suffer more as a result of the financial crisis than they did in the global financial crisis in 1998.
Third, there will be increased demand for closer and more direct collaboration and partnership between government, industry and academia to address various issues caused by COVID-19, especially when it comes to R&D activities.
Teaching and research activities at universities and colleges will be more influenced by the various stakeholders and external factors and these activities will have to be more responsive and relevant to the changing world and society and contribute to the betterment of society and human welfare rather than be about pure academic research.
Bad news for humanities and social sciences
Fourth, more emphasis is likely to be placed on developing and providing educational programmes in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Similarly, more funding will be invested in research in the hard sciences, especially in medical and life sciences, with a decline in interest in funding academic programmes and research in the humanities and social sciences.
This will inevitably lead to a rise in professional, practical and utilitarian education and research in universities and colleges in most countries.
Online education and training
Fifth, it is apparent that a wider variety of channels for teaching, especially online and distance teaching and learning methods, will be used by universities and colleges. As a recent UNESCO report says, this could range from integrated digital learning platforms, video lessons and MOOCs to radio and TV broadcasts.
Although it is still unlikely that these virtual or digital teaching methods will replace traditional methods of teaching and learning, such as in-person lectures and group discussions on campus, their role as a supplementary teaching and learning method will become more and more important.
Additionally, as increasingly widespread provision of online teaching has made it possible for a large number of students with academically diverse backgrounds, such as under-represented students, to access these virtual educational programmes, university faculty members need to develop and deliver their courses with more flexibility and relevance by strengthening a student-centred approach and devoting more attention to learning outcomes.
Further, traditional quality assurance frameworks, especially institutional policies on admissions, curriculum development and delivery as well as academic degrees, need to be greatly modified to be adaptive to the changing body of learners.
Sixth, due to these new and potential changes in international higher education, universities and colleges will need to devote more time, effort and budget to academic development activities.
Whereas currently development activities are focused more on new and young academics, senior faculty, administrative staff and even students will need to be trained in how to deal with the changing academic and educational environments they will operate in and master new technology and digital skills in their teaching, research, administrative and learning activities.
Seventh, alongside this wider use of online and distance teaching and learning in universities and colleges, universities and colleges will increasingly need to educate academics, staff, administrators and students about how to protect data privacy, data security and avoid violating copyright and other data privacy.
Eighth, universities and colleges will need to make more efforts to build their risk management frameworks to identify potential threats and to define a strategy for eliminating or minimising these as well as mechanisms to effectively monitor and evaluate these strategies.
The last area to watch, but by no means the least important, concerns the growing geopolitical tensions and conflicts between the US and other Western countries, and China.
This will inevitably change the global landscape of higher education, creating uncertain prospects for institutional and personal links between the West and China.
Seemingly, ideological and political and cultural values will continue to play a more and more apparent and important role in internationally collaborative and exchange activities and it is likely that the outbreak of COVID-19 will become an important turning point in bringing fundamental changes to educational and research relationships between the West and China at the regional and national levels.
Enormous changes will occur in higher education in the post COVID-19 age, but that does not mean higher education will become less important.
Keeping up to date with key changes and trends in higher education and predictions about what the future holds for higher education will help us to reduce the risks higher education faces and to create more successful strategies that will make higher education become more responsive and relevant in the post COVID-19 world.
Professor Futao Huang is based at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan, and is also co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme.