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Jakarta Post

Will COVID-19 transform universities and colleges?

  • Said Irandoust


Jakarta   /   Sat, July 18, 2020   /   11:21 am
Will COVID-19 transform universities and colleges? Illustration of a woman studying at home (Shutterstock/fizkes)

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended business as usual for universities and colleges. Millions of students around the world are now studying remotely as campuses shut down in an attempt to help contain the virus.

Many institutions of higher learning are facing serious financial challenges as the domestic and global economies may face major recessions. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that the pandemic may cause the global economy to shrink by nearly 1 percent by the end of 2020, while the International Labor Organization (ILO) projects an increase in global unemployment of between 5.3 million and 24.7 million, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) projects a 13 percent to 32 percent decline in global trade this year.

According to UN reports, an economic recession could impact higher education institutions in many ways, including a reduction in employment opportunities for graduates who are likely to enter the job market in the next few months, possible delays in students paying fees or an inability to pay tuition at all, the inability of governments to meet commitments to publicly funded institutions to the level desired and, most importantly, changes in student behavior toward the mode and preference of particular degree programs.

Enrollment is predicted to decline between 15 percent and 25 percent, depending on which part of the world the calculations are made in. In essence, the overall impact on higher education is likely to be quite significant with some radical changes in the way institutions of higher education operate.

It is obvious that the higher education sector has been disrupted and is being referred to as the “black swan moment” or “inflection point”. While many sectors have been disrupted by technology over the last decade, the higher education sector has until this pandemic remained largely in its traditional model, and many universities and colleges may continue to operate in the same way as they did pre-COVID-19.

However, those institutions with bold and forward-thinking ambitions should grasp this opportunity to create new models of higher education. Universities and colleges now more than ever have the opportunity to transform and redesign the concept of higher education, offering exciting impactful programs that are accessible to students of diverse backgrounds through leveraging technology. This is the time to take a longer-term view of how higher education could innovate and transform itself.

New technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality can radically change the way we teach our students, maximizing learning outcomes and students’ success. These new tools can make teaching and learning more efficient, optimizing faculty time with students. In addition, the use of new technologies can also help universities and colleges offer a truly personalized learning experience to students overcoming one of the biggest limitations of our current education model.

There is no substitute for a good teacher in spite of the advancement of technology and its application in teaching and learning. Face-to-face learning and the broader experience of a rich campus-based higher education that supports the transition of young people into responsible professionals will always be important. Combining the best of in-person and online learning, under a hybrid model, is likely going to be the optimal and preferred concept into the future.

The QS World University Rankings has conducted a series of student surveys with more than 30,000 respondents on the subject “The Impact of Coronavirus on Prospective International Students”, the latest in May 2020.

It found that 64 percent of the respondents stated that their plans to study overseas have been affected, which clearly demonstrates that more and more prospective international students are changing their study plans because of the coronavirus; 60 percent of the respondents intend to delay or defer study abroad, and only 7 percent intend to study in a different country. Furthermore, the survey shows that only 6 percent now no longer want to study overseas, suggesting that the market for international students is almost as strong as ever.

Asked how interested they would be in studying their degrees online because of the coronavirus, 60 percent indicated that they had some level of interest in studying online, while 40 percent expressed to have no interest at all.

The survey also asked the respondents whether they would be interested in starting their studies in the upcoming academic year, even if this was initially delivered online. The results show that a promising 46 percent would be interested in starting their studies online as a temporary measure.

Given these results, higher education institutions may wish to focus on some of the key benefits of online learning when communicating with prospective international students in their current recruitment efforts.

The aftermath of the current situation will have a profound impact on universities and colleges around the world in many ways and will force institutions of higher learning to rethink their operating models, strategies and fundamentally the manner in which higher education will be designed and delivered. 

Major changes will include a shift from conventional lectures to online education, new ways of curriculum planning and delivery, an emphasis on pedagogical innovativeness, efficiency and cost reduction, a search for new markets and greater emphasis on students’ experiences in the education process. Responding adequately to these challenges will require institutions of higher learning to focus on quality, relevance and agility.

Agility, flexibility and resiliency are not just crucial skills for 21st-century students. They are also vital skills for 21st-century institutions.


The writer is former vice president of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, former vice chancellor of University of Borås in Sweden, former president of the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, and currently senior adviser for higher education institutions in Jakarta.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.