Higher education under unprecedented pressure

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the Head of the International Office and a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg. She recently penned ​an opinion article published in the Sunday Times on 19 April 2020.

Higher education is under unprecedented pressure. Not only is the academic teaching project being overhauled and moved online in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, the financial model supporting public universities has never been more threatened.

In the immediate we will see funds channelled towards the health sector and to support those hit by reduced income generation during the lockdown; in the long term , financial aid will be needed for an already ailing economy that will be playing catch-up long after the lockdown and the pandemic have ended.

In addition, higher education institutions will most likely face a pushback from students and parents heavily burden by tuition fees and general living costs. Question will be asked as to what they are getting for their hard-earned cash as teaching is conducted online and students no longer have the same access to lecturing staff and campus facilities and services.

Universities have for some time come under pressure from newer, cheaper online institutions offering qualifications of varying quality, with varying degree of oversight exercised by the government and professional bodies. To counter this competition, universities have emphasised campus experience, long-standing academic traditions and access to well-known and respected academics and researcher that enhance the learning experience for their students.

Universities are ranked on the quality and scope of their educational offerings and their research output. And graduates with degrees from well-known universities supposedly have an easier route into industry. In short, universities live on their reputation.

Overall knowledge is becoming ever-more difficult to package as a saleable commodity as more and more information, and even whole course and degree packages become available online.

The COVID-19 outbreak has put increased focus on online and so-called blended learning opportunities – tuition and lectures conducted both online and through face-to-face lectures and tutoring sessions on campus. These blended learning options are neither new nor adhoc, and are already in place and have been tested by most institutions.

What is new is the scale of these programmes. Overnight universities around the world has had to adapt all course content to the online environment and get all lecturing staff up to speed on new teaching technologies and methodologies and how to best adapt content to online platforms. More than anything assessments and exams are in question and universities have to think through how these can be conducted in ways that ensure ethics and adherence to assessment rules and regulations.

There are lessons to be learnt and by moving some teaching online, universities can provide more cost efficient education. It is an opportunity for universities and institutions of higher education to truly embrace and emerge themselves in the Fourth Industrial revolution.

It provides for universities to ask questions around whether on-campus teaching is more costly than other forms of teaching and if overhead costs can be reduced and campus facilities repurposed. Fewer students on campus will provide universities with opportunities to rethink usage of spaces in multiple ways and to prioritise practical and laboratory work more difficult to move online.

The idea of more flexible structuring of time and options for on- and off-campus learning might also make better sense for students who cannot afford a daily commute to campus.

Not having a full day/full week on campus also frees up much needed time for studies. In truth there are differences between degrees and disciplines, and yes campus provides for social activities and social interactions that are unique and often a much treasured experience of university life, but does not have to be forsaken all together. The idea of a more flexible structuring of time and options for on and off campus learning might also make better sense for students who cannot afford a daily commute to campus.

The opportunity exists to provide more flexible learning paths for students and an augmented learning experience by accessing several modes of teaching whether online or offline at their own pace and in their own time. If degrees can be accessed online for free or at lower costs by newer institutions, universities must make sure that what they offer is access to the best teachers and researchers and that such individuals are equipped to engage with students through the blended learning opportunities created.

Blended learning require that teams of lecturers, content developers, people with technical expertise be formed around degrees and within disciplines to take the teaching project forward. This as the role of a single lecturer standing in front of a class becomes less common. This way, knowledge sharing can take place throughout the university and between disciplines, contributing to interdisciplinarity and fostering of collaborative skills.

This also provides for a new way of looking at degrees and an augmented student experience. The university experience is one of feeling connected to a world of ideas, excellence and expertise. This is where traditional universities have a competitive advantage over newer competitors who does not have the same span of expertise across multiple disciplines and research fields. The opportunity is here to not only recreate this experience online but to augment it, and this in ways that are truly accessible.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

professor ylva rodney gumede
Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede
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