Coordinated approaches in higher education at the heart of successful responses to the COVID-19 crisis

World Bank / Nafise Motlaq

The global health crisis has caused major disruptions to the provision of higher education (HE) across a large number of systems and institutions. Due to closures, physical teaching and learning were no longer possible in most countries, and HE systems and institutions were compelled to act promptly to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning.

IIEP-UNESCO’s recent online forum on ‘Ensuring equitable quality higher education under COVID-19’ brought together 55 participants from 33 countries, and professionals of diverse profiles including policy-makers, quality-assurance professionals, experts, HE staff, and students.

 Remote teaching as an immediate response

From the start of the outbreak, various alternative delivery modalities were put in place in HE. While about 25% of forum participants reported that teaching and learning had been postponed until further notice, the large majority (73%) noted that teaching and learning were being delivered at a distance (see Figure 1). This is an indication of an overall commitment from HE systems and institutions towards ensuring the continuity of teaching and learning. 


Figure 1. Impact on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

The choice and type of alternative arrangements for the provision of education reflected pre-existing capacities for distance and online learning, which vary widely across systems and institutions. Institutions used a variety of information technology (IT) software, programs, and tools to deliver lectures through synchronous and asynchronous formats. Participants from Bahrain, Kenya, and Malawi mentioned the use of Moodle as an open learning management system.  

Some institutions not only capitalized on their prior experience, but managed to strengthen their capacity for distance and online learning. This was the case with the Open University, in the United Kingdom, where online learning has been central to its operations for many years. The University of Zimbabwe has focused on improving the functionality of its e-learning platform and training staff on the use of e-learning methodologies. The IT department at Jean Piaget University of Angola has developed its own platform to facilitate distance and online learning modalities.

At the same time, ensuring education continuity came with several notable challenges, according to our participants. They raised concerns about the quality and inclusiveness of distance and online learning. Many students, particularly from rural areas and low socio-economic backgrounds, have faced enormous difficulties in accessing and benefiting from the opportunities provided by distance and online learning, particularly due to widespread lack of access to computer equipment and/or the internet. 

The discussion forum invited participants to elaborate on the measures put in place at the national and institutional levels to support the transition to remote teaching and learning. Responses reflected differences of context, and some systems and institutions have had a better capacity for crisis management than others.

Contingency planning at the heart of crisis management

A number of participants mentioned the importance of contingency planning in mitigating the challenges brought about by the crisis. In Qatar, for example, a comprehensive emergency plan was already in place before the outbreak, which allowed HE institutions to quickly transition to online instruction. An emergency team was also mobilized to coordinate the response and plan for the potential opening of HE institutions for the next study term.

Specific staff responsible for crisis management

In Chad, a technical committee was established to support the Government to advise the HE sector on strategies to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning. Similarly, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science of the Russian Federation established a working group comprised of members of leading universities, which has been tasked to share good practices and resources with other institutions to help them cope with the crisis.

Importance of coordinated approaches at the institutional level

Some HE institutions facilitated the transition to distance and online learning by coordinating with existing support structures and drawing on existing resources. At the University of Applied Sciences in Germany, the transition to e-learning was set up and supervised by institutional departments, including the Centre for Quality Development, the Library, and the Data Centre. These units have played a coordinating role, issuing detailed guidelines for academics on digitalizing their courses, using e-learning platforms, tools, and equipment supported by the university, and preparing and conducting examinations. In the Gambia, the university management set up a task force to oversee and coordinate the transition to online teaching and learning. In planning for the response, the task force developed an online framework to guide the implementation of online teaching and learning.

These few but instructive experiences from the forum discussions highlight the important benefits of investing in crisis preparedness, through training staff, developing online teaching and learning infrastructure, and setting up adequate support structures for students and HE personnel. The COVID-19 emergency has underscored the importance of contingency planning and of a coordinated approach to effectively respond to crises. Moving forward, it will be also be an opportunity for the HE sector to reflect on what the sector’s contribution to the prevention of future crises could be.