Universities have a long history of operating in environments that are unstable, disruptive and unpredictable. They’ve endured political upheavals, financial crises and disruptive trends such as digital transformation and globalisation.
They’ve had to respond to demands for greater access, life-long learning and multiple competing demands from students, society, the state, industry and local communities.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and a more formidable challenge. The scope and scale of its challenges have multiple dimensions. In the South African context, these are interwoven into existing socioeconomic conditions. These include poverty and deep, unsustainable inequalities.
The pandemic is cause for pause.
We have to make sense of its impact. More importantly, we have to seize the moment to be innovative, proactive and adapt for a post-COVID-19 world. Higher education has to re-think what its future would look like and take steps towards this.
This is no easy task considering that the exact parameters of a post-COVID-19 future remain unknown. What’s clear is that many aspects of the pre-COVID-19 reality will change. The pandemic has, for example, intensified existing disruptive trends and crises. These include digital transformation and financial crises.
Futuristic trends are already emerging, having been accelerated by the pandemic. They include online teaching and learning and the need for up-skilling. Remote working, adoption of 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and robotics have also been accelerated by the pandemic.
The pandemic has also challenged the suitability, viability and sustainability of university operating models, practices and systems. If they are to survive and thrive after the pandemic, universities must reassess and adapt their strategies.
COVID-19 has many negative implications for higher education. These include the disruption of academic programmes and research, financial challenges, and health and wellbeing of staff and students. Graduates also face a constrained labour market due to the poorly performing economy that has been aggravated by the pandemic. These will reverberate long after the pandemic has been contained.
The migration by universities to emergency remote learning has sharpened the existing socio-economic fault lines in higher education and society at large. This is mainly due to varying institutional resources and students’ socio-economic circumstances. These hamper students’ experience of the benefits of online education.
A number of universities are struggling with this transition. This is mainly due to inadequate information technology infrastructure, limited expertise for online teaching and learning methods and the the inability of institutions to provide computers and data to students.
Notwithstanding these challenges, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a hybrid or blended education strategy that’s aligned with the country’s reality.
The idea isn’t to pursue online education as an alternative to contact higher education. Nor is online education an antidote to the sector’s resource challenges. It’s to optimise multiple delivery modes and embrace creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.
This can be achieved through blending teaching and learning methods to improve learning outcomes. This would also improve graduate readiness for an evolving and unpredictable employment landscape.
COVID-19 is thus an opportunity for higher education to develop online education further. It’s also an opportunity to embrace online education as a delivery mode, using it to expand access and strengthen excellence in teaching and learning.
The financial outlook of universities has been generally negative. Over the past several years state funding hasn’t matched the increasing costs of providing higher education and rising student numbers. The outlook has been worsened by COVID-19.
In South Africa, this challenge has been worsened in three main ways. First, by a plummeting economy and, second, reduced allocations in the 2020 special adjustment budget. Third, by unplanned expenses by universities in response to COVID-19.
This context means that universities must contend with a variety of changes to traditional revenue sources. They must also navigate fragmented funding streams and weather economic fluctuations.
As the sector contemplates the future of higher education, its priority has to be the emergence of a university system that’s appropriately funded to engender excellence, affordability, equitable access and sustainability.
The silver lining
The pandemic has silver linings. It can serve as a springboard for re-thinking the future of higher education. It can also help spur the strengthening of the pact between universities, the state, business, society and communities.
Many universities are involved in COVID-19 research. This includes vaccine and drug development, epidemiology and the socio-economic impact of the disease.
This research presents universities with an opportunity to restore and strengthen trust in their research capabilities and expertise. It can also help universities mobilise research funding, which has been declining.
By pursuing research that can make an impact on areas of great societal need, universities can also demonstrate that they’re interconnected with society. COVID-19 research can demonstrate that universities can contribute to the wellbeing and advancement of South Africa, Africa and the world.
Overall, re-thinking South Africa’s university system should be about creating a future-oriented system.
The pandemic is an inflection point. It behoves universities to re-imagine new teaching and learning possibilities. It calls for universities to re-examine the way they do research and pursue collaborations. It calls for the sector to re-examine how it works. Higher education must re-define the rigid bureaucracies that characterise the system.
Universities must also pursue bold responses to enhance their sustainability, relevance and contribution to the country’s socio-economic advancement. Effective institutional leadership is critical for realising the envisaged future-oriented university system.