Higher education post-pandemic

CHURCHILL once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The Covid-19 pandemic came like a bolt, accelerating digital adoption across the global higher education sector and leading to what some have described as the world’s largest experiment in rapid digital transformation. Here’s how higher education is likely to transform in the new normal post-pandemic:

> Digital learning will de-risk the dominant higher education modelDigital learning used to be seen as a source of risk. Now developing university-wide capabilities to offer effective online learning and assessment will be an important capability for the future. Since most colleges and universities have operated online during the lockdown, and it worked, university leaders will want lectures to stay online whilst tutorials and practicals are held face to face on campus to either increase campus capacity, lower their prices, increase their gross margins or market new online programmes.

> Institutions will reposition to survive and growUniversities will begin to explore how technology can help expand into new markets for recruitment and for delivery, internationally and domestically. Some may offer more affordable (online) programmes or micro-credentials, while others may opt for value-based education by offering premium online learning options, or introduce different fees for face-to-face versus online learning options. The value of education will shift from the need of an expensive campus to the quality of academics, learning design and experience, supported by cutting-edge and reliable learning technology.

> Campuses are for interaction, engagement and collaborationWith financial sustainability a growing concern, technology has become a great enabler not only for learning continuity but long-term survival. Holding face-to-face lectures will be deemed inefficient. After the pandemic, almost all lectures will be conducted online, which in turn will build students’ self-directed and independent learning skills. Tutorials will take centre stage to validate and synthesise students’ learning. It is here that lecturers can build key future job skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, problem- solving and social-emotional competencies. Campuses in the future may become relatively smaller and will be redesigned as a shared place for interaction, engagement and collaboration as well as to house more students. Instead of investing in more buildings and facilities, there will be intensified collaboration with other universities or industry partners to share access to resources, e.g. campus, staff, lab, online materials, library AND industrial-grade equipment.

> Rise in sessional workforceEmployment terms are likely to change with businesses increasing their proportionS of the sessional workforce. As synchronous and asynchronous learning become an accepted norm, the global higher education workforce will be increasingly casualised, not only due to cuts in funding, but the prospect of employing the best talents in a given field from around the globe, and without the need to travel. Institutions will hire more sessional experts from the industry to leverage on their industry experience.

> Deglobalisation of higher educationMany international students will not be able to travel abroad due to travel restrictions, safety and health concerns, and financial considerations. Regional study destinations will be increasingly preferred over traditional popular destinations in developed countries. Many Malaysians may defer their plan to study abroad and choose to study locally first before transferring to overseas universities through dual award or articulation arrangements. Faced with declining enrolments, universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia will likely set up micro-campuses in Asia, South America and Africa, offering popular niche programmes to offset the loss in fee incomes in their home campuses. There will be increased opportunities for Malaysian universities to offer transnational programmes in third world countries. There will be greater opportunities to collaborate with universities globally through online presence and the formation of university learning consortia to share resources.

> Best lecturers are learning experience (LEx) curatorsAs learning online is seamlessly weaved with face-to-face interactions, effective and in-demand lecturers are those who can curate and facilitate a rich learning experience, drawn from multiple resources. In this scenario, quality education may value communication and animation skills and celebrity teachers more than traditional academic credentials. To support lecturers and expedite adoption levels, universities will invest in digital innovation teams within each faculty to strategise and to improve students’ online learning experience.

> Entrepreneurialism will fetch a premiumMore businesses will operate online, requiring employees to work remotely. Employers will prefer graduates who can operate independently, effectively and efficiently online, working from wherever they are. This will also enable companies to tap into talent from around the globe. Employers will increasingly prefer graduates with a growth mindset who can identify business value, take risks, innovate to seize business opportunities, and strengthen the businesses’ competitive advantage.

> Academic scores are not ideal for quantifying potential Graduates from this year will retire somewhere around 2065. Universities should not aim to give students the skills to stay marketable in the immediate future but the skills to create the future. There will be increasing demand for evidence of key capabilities, either for employment or to undertake self-employment. This includes job-specific skills, communication, collaboration, cultural adaptation, creativity and problem-solving, and social-emotional intelligence. Institutions that award complementary transcripts to highlight the acquisition of specific skills will give its students an edge upon graduation. There will be greater demand for flexible, stackable industry-recognised micro-credentials or skills certificates that provide evidence of an individual’s professional abilities.

> Flexible, hybrid and interdisciplinary programmes will growMany traditional jobs will become obsolete and new jobs will emerge to tackle real-world problems that are increasingly complex, hard to define, challenging to solve, and often have more than one right answer. Such jobs require interdisciplinary education that develops skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, evaluation, synthesis, and integration. There will be greater demand for interdisciplinary or hybrid programmes and technology-infused programmes that merge components of two or more disciplines into a single programme of instruction.

> Applied education should not follow academic educationProgrammes that incorporate extensive in-company or work-based learning will see increased enrolments, due to the presumed guarantee of jobs through immersive learning. The era of an “Open Loop University” will arrive on our shores. Some students will choose to concentrate their on-campus stint for a few years on the earlier side, as the social process of maturation within a peer group remains important. Other students, freed from the social stigma attached to taking gap years or years “off” during their education, will dive enthusiastically into applied environments –doing internships and “in-company” immersions that will sharpen their desires for and abilities to co-curate their programmes of study according to their interests, strengths and ambitions.

Taylor’s University deputy vice-chancellor and chief academic officer Dr Pradeep Nair is a multi-award-winning professor of leadership and innovation, having spent three decades in higher education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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