The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and the Global Young Academy (GYA) lay out recommendations to mitigate the harms of COVID-19 and seize on the opportunities to improve higher education systems around the world.
On 16 March 2020 the world started to shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19. One year later, existing societal inequities have been brought into sharp relief. In the higher education sector, in-person teaching, learning and research have faced severe interruptions or have been halted altogether. Faculty and student flexibility and mobility have been reduced, and university resources have been severely constrained and remain uncertain.
The impacts on early-career researchers and faculty are especially alarming. In addition to lost research and student training opportunities, reports of retracted postdoctoral and faculty offers, hiring freezes, pay cuts, lost professional development opportunities, and many young scholars dropping out of the workforce all threaten to lead to a “lost generation” of researchers if rapid action is not taken.
Two global networks of scholars, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and the Global Young Academy (GYA), issued ‘Reducing the impact of COVID-19 on inequalities in higher education: A call for action to the international community‘, a communiqué highlighting some of the most pressing challenges for higher education globally, and propose solutions to mitigate the further entrenchment of inequalities.
The main challenges in higher education highlighted in the communique are the reduction of flexibility and mobility, the interruption of research and career trajectories, the lack of access to fundamental learning resources, the increased complexity of students’ digital and learning needs, and the loss of human interaction from excess digitization in education delivery. Additionally, historically-disadvantaged groups, including women and those with childcare responsibilities, and early-career researchers, are those whose careers suffer the mostbecause of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis and the associated expansion of digital connectivity has also provided opportunities for both teaching and research, especially concerning the promotion of open education and collaboration, the strengthening of student-centred learning and education delivery, and improved opportunities to partner with local experts and organizations such as senior and young academies.
The IAP and the GYA provide a set of recommendations to university administrators, higher education policymakers, research funding agencies, academies and scholars.
To promote open education and research collaboration:
- Universities should work together via new or existing networks to promote collaboration and exchange open source ideas and softwareat the regional and global levels.
- Higher education and research funders should help prevent a “lost generation” of scholars through the provision of research grants, positions, mentorship, and other forms of support.
To expand digital connectivity and access to hardware:
- National governments should prioritise the expansion of internet access for all students and researchers.
- International aid organizations should prioritize the United Nations educational Sustainable Development Goals to expand access to technology and online learning.
- Universities and governments should prioritize quality education that is student-centred and guided by a vision for long-term success of students.
To incorporate relevant local expertise:
- Universities should review systems of assessmentof students and researchers.
- Seniorand young academies should act proactively toadvise policymakers on post-COVID-19 higher education policy reforms and investmentsat the national and regional levels.
Anindita Bhadra, Co-Chair of the GYA and Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, recounted, “As a behavioural biologist, our research on free-ranging dogs is entirely field-based. Our experiments had to be stopped and a couple of students got stuck in a different city due to the lockdown in India. Since then, we have yet to get back to full-fledged field work, research is in a limbo and students are losing precious time.”
“Those who today are at the early stage of their careers will be tomorrow’s leaders and innovators in health, science and technology. They will be the ones to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from the climate crisis to future emerging infectious diseases. The world cannot afford to lose them,” says IAP President Volker ter Meulen.
“Although the pandemic has presented major obstacles to universities, as faculty, it has forced us to re-examine how we can make our teaching and evaluation systems more effective,” said André Xuereb, GYA member, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Malta, and one of the lead authors of the communique.
“We must seize on the opportunity we have now to strengthen partnerships among universities to share open source materials and software, both regionally, and globally,” added Mohamed Hassan, another lead author of the communique, a distinguished Sudanese mathematician, and President of The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS). “Universities around the world, higher education policymakers, research funding agencies, intergovernmental bodies and scholars themselves must work together to promote equity in higher education.”
This article was first published by The InterAcademy Partnership.