COVID-19: What’s next for us in Higher Education?

By Chiu Kwan-yu Mike, AUN Intern
19 August 2020

“Welcome to NUS – at least, one-fifth of it”. Having survived the uneasy A-Level with flying colours, a new Singaporean undergraduate could finally have the agonizing weight of university admittanceoff her mind. Nonetheless, even if she is fortunate enough to be offered on-campus residence, she will be confined to one of the five “zones” designated by the university administration, for the purpose of social distancing in the midst of the lingering shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s totally new but understandable,’ she said, when asked what she felt about commencing campus life in the post-COVID era.

In dozens of areas across Asia, many higher education institutions (HEIs) are busy considering reopening their campuses for the upcoming fall semester. The area most likely to fully reopen would be Taiwan. Even in March – when the world witnessed skyrocketing surges of the infections - the island was far from lockdown, and university students were still attending classes face-to-face, albeit with masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) and a certain level of distancing. Having made staggering efforts to maintain single-digit numbers of new cases per day since 20 April, no wonder why graduates at the National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) could gather – with masks on – and celebrate one of the biggest milestones of their lives. Across the island, nearly all HEIs are resuming to nine-tenths of the “old normal” (only without international students), despite social distancing protocols still being in place.

Students, especially freshmen and sophomores, in other areas may be less fortunate than their Taiwanese counterparts. Starting from early-June, universities in mainland China will only re- welcome final-year undergraduates and postgraduates for lab work and practicums. Peking University (PKU), for example, will only let about 7,000 seniors and staff back gradually in four batches, with mandatory registration via health QR codes, body temperature measurements and dine-in service restrictions. This seemingly optimistic progress towards reopening in the coming fall semester is also observed in Vietnam, where schools are permitted to open their arms to their staff and students in a hybrid approach: face-to-face lessons supplemented with online substitutes and those in office co-working with colleagues working from home (WFH). However, this blended mode is not limited to just Asian HEIs – at Heidelberg University in Germany, we see similar stories: larger lectures going online and small-group seminars and tutorials offline.

If you are one of the students in the above-mentioned areas, do remember that the chance to meet your teachers and classmates face-to-face should never be taken for granted. HEIs from at least four Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea have predicted the prolongation of online learning for the coming fall. Extended campus closures for HEIs in the latter two countries, as well as those in Hong Kong, are mostly attributed to the resurgence of the pandemic as a consequence of early attempts to lift restrictions. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the outlook could not be more bleak. Despite a study done by QS in June that reports three in four international students expect to be able to attend classes within three to six months at their host university, CUHK has confirmed with its students that online teaching is likely to continue “until further notice”.

So, what should students expect when the next semester begins? For those who will enjoy the privilege of going back to school, there is a list of new things for which you should get prepared. On the first day when you step into the lecture hall, do not dare to sit next to your besties or buddies – leave two to three spaces in between; and of course, say goodbye to your lesson-time bubble tea and chips and always keep your masks on. Want to reserve one of the tennis courts for happy hours on Friday? Be prepared for more competition, as maybe only two in four courts will be open. The same applies to in-campus transport, as tighter limits on the number of folks on board will be in place. Weekend chills at bars, karaokes and party rooms might still be available, but you might have to choose from your list of BFFs in order not to create another infected cluster. And of course, it is wise to always be ready for a sudden diversion back to virtual classrooms, where you only see your pals via the screen and teachers through emails and texting devices.

How about those who are lucky enough to home-study at least for the coming term? One student’s 6-month experience shows that the most difficult thing to cope with is solitude – not only with your mates, but with your studies on the whole. Your participation grade may still remain even in online classes, and the way of securing good grades might depend on your courage to raise queries in the chat box or unmute your microphone (which may be particularly hard for Asian students). Further, it is not until such times when you discover that approaching your teacher for help is so troublesome: you need to type an email or arrange a call instead of just heading towards the lecture stand and asking verbally. Of course, it is always important to mute yourself when others speak, as this turns out to be the better alternative to pay respect to other students in the class. Insofar as you remain enthusiastically connected, you are going to close the distance towards mastering the online learning culture, and even advance to be a social butterfly in the web of virtual classrooms. The challenge ahead is even more immense for the faculties of HEIs. If it is fair to say that not all tertiary students are as techno-savvy as they are “supposed to be”, it is even truer for faculties. Notwithstanding the drastic, unprecedented online shift in the previous semester, the challenge to ensure the quality of the delivery of education and student assessments in the virtual classroom is still upheld. The outlook is even bleaker if one considers the statistic from QS that only one in five of HEIs in the world envisage physical resumption in no earlier than January 2021 (i.e. at least one more semester to go!), which might be a nightmare for some faculties. In order to adapt to the post- COVID-19 teaching environment, faculties are to re-calibrate their curriculum, pedagogy, instructional assessments…and the list goes on and on, with the silver lining still appearing dim, if not nowhere to be seen.

The forefront bearer of the brunt would be instructional assessments that basically rely on physical attendance. A case in point would be curriculum-linked vocational training and internships, which saw institutional incongruence due to appraisal systems that only recognize physical ones – clearly, it is about time the faculty and administrators of the university reshaped the mode of assessments so as to protect students from the woes of institutional time-lag and incongruence. In addition, educators will also have to consider customizing and assimilating their curriculums in response to the very nature of the virtual classroom – the shorter attention spans of youthful pupils – but, at the same time, delivering all learning outcomes and reaching all pedagogical expectations as well. Let us also not forget the more individualized and distanced communication between teachers and learners, which requires more time (and effort) compared to the former in dealing with specific circumstances. For example, a lecturer might struggle to handle international students from different time zones while working on fixed working hours that do not correspond with those students’ waking hours. Worse still, constant shifts incurred from hybrid delivery modes might render the issue even more volatile, inconsistent and hence sophisticated than it could have been. What might possibly overwhelm educators is that, while uncertainties of teaching quality arise from the disconnection between him/herself and his/her students, they are indeed, paradoxically, obliged to provide the educational qualities that are on par with those as if everyone were still in the “old normal” but in an entirely new landscape depriving them of access to adequate capacity-related support. If amendments and fine-tuning on pedagogical, assessment, evaluation and accreditation institutions are not made, the many challenges faced by faculties will just end up being seen as the elephant in the room, where nobody gains at the end of the day.

Wide institutional reforms in the new normal would not have been possible if administrators and managers of HEIs had been absent. Amidst the travel restrictions ascribed to COVID-19, administrators immediately found themselves confronted by a vitally pressing issue: the financial structure that relies on revenues from international students and corporate donors no longer exists. Worse still, because of the virtual learning space being used in place of the physical, nearly one in eight students demand discounted tuition as compensation for the perceived “downgrade” to their education, reported by QS. On the other hand, it remains utterly arduous to manage staff in terms of discipline and appraisal, provided that trust empowerment has always been ubiquitous in the original physical setting.

In general, administrators and policymakers will fall into a catch-22 situation: to reopen campus and resume normal operations, but with heightened risks of rebound in cases. Many who struggle to claw their way back to the old normal may find their efforts in vain as they are unable to resist the reality that history will move on with or without them. The ethical dilemma incurred is particularly discernable in areas where HEIs rely only on the old model for their very survival. Take the US higher education sector, which the private prevails over the public, as a reference. Renowned private HEIs like Tufts, Georgetown and Tulane are naturally inclined, if not desperate, to resume normal operation in the fall, drawing waves of criticisms that insufficient public health resources are provided to staff and students and staff are forced to choose between their health and must-be- physical career. Though the path towards reopening several other distinguished counterparts, such as Stanford and MIT, are more plain sailing on the whole, occasional comebacks of the virus have still resulted in ad-hoc scale-backs. This is reminiscent of a comic by Kallaugher K. K. (KAL) on The Economist, where a never-ending “COVID Cycle” is depicted: When you cautious, get out of the sanctuary, you see the virus menacing ferociously towards you again, and you have to quickly get rid of it, slam the sanctuary door and shut yourself inside for a some period again – eventually, you are stuck at the starting point again. When will this come to an end?

We don’t know; but the inevitable turn towards the new normal created by COVID-19 seems to have set. No matter if you are a learner, cultivator or leader, being fixated on keeping things as they were does not help. While we are wrestling to escape of the mud pool of the transition stage, one should not overlook the lessons to be learned from the pandemic towards the realm of higher education: increasingly doubted neoliberalist-driven agendas, alarmed sustainability of the globalized sector, and wake-up calls for a more human-centric approach in irrigating souls rather than cutting down jungles (C.S. Lewis). We are in certainly uncertain times, where the mentalities of pragmatism, resilience and empathy have been more important than ever. With the devastatingly worldwide catastrophes caused by the pandemic, we need these qualities that are connected and empowered equally at the same scale. This excruciation might extend its jaws to the many generations later – escapism is therefore never the cure, and we in HEIs have to cope and live with it. Costs may be painful, but that does not mean we have to stop and give in, otherwise we would not be able to gracefully face our children and grandchildren. We want our descendants to know that their ancestors have acted responsibly in times of crises for their well-being at their times. Ultimately, it is our attitude and decisions now that determines the sort of landscape in the higher education sector that will be passed on to and inherited by learners, irrigators and facilitators, together with the sieged virus, many years later.


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