By Laksiri Fernando –
World University Service (WUS) initially planned its 100th Anniversary to be celebrated in Vienna on 14-16 May 2020. The theme of the world conference was ‘Human Right to Quality Education for All,’ promoting the sustainable development goals on education, SDG 4.
Because of the Covid pandemic, however, it had to be postponed and it is now scheduled to be held on 21-23 September 2021. Because of the pandemic, not only the conference but its theme is also affected. There are new challenges to the right to education because of the pandemic and new thinking also might be necessary to carry forward the intended primary goals of WUS’ attempts on the subject.
Nearly 875 million school population, and over 200 million university population are affected by the Covid pandemic. Students, school teachers, and academics, are included in these figures. This is nearly 15% of the world population and in terms of education, career opportunities, and knowledge production and research this is devastating. Of course the whole of the world population is affected by the Covid pandemic. But the above facts and figures are highlighted given we are here focusing on education and the impact of Covid pandemic on the right to quality education.
When a right is normally violated or even infringed, there are culprits or violators who are responsible. But in this case it is difficult to pinpoint a violator, except in terms of who have aggravated or neglected the situation. Therefore, the Covid impact on education appears a common predicament nevertheless exposing many underlying defects in the world education system or systems that this article would focus on.
What are these underlying defects? Inequality, lack of opportunity and discrimination are the most important causes even before the eruption of the pandemic. These three causes are interlinked although for the sake of simplicity or even otherwise they can be separated.
Inequality (1) between rich and poor countries, (2) between urban and rural (or remote) areas within countries, and (3) between rich and poor students/families are some of the features. In terms of schooling, 850 million children, equal to those who are in school, are always out of school for these and other reasons. This is even before the pandemic, and the situation has now worsened because the poor countries, poor areas and poor people have newly faced enormous difficulties. A new distinction is between ‘rich online’ and ‘poor online’ or ‘absence of online’
When parents are poor and also uneducated (or less-educated) for the same reason, the motivation to send children to school is low. The UNICEF estimates roughly 160 million children are in child-labor or illicit employment due to various reasons. This is about neglect and exploitation. Even if some parents are motivated to send children to school, and even if school education is free and fair, there are certain amenities that the parents might not be in a position to afford. These are lack of opportunities from the demand side; no opportunity to claim even the right to education.
The lack of opportunities also come from the supply side, or the side of the governments or States. Some States might not give priority to education. (1) In conflict ridden countries, higher amounts of money, double or treble, are spent on defense or on military. This is unfortunate to say the least. (2) The neglect of public education also come from other sources of public policy. Privatization of education is one. When it is done, the rich people might benefit, but not the poor or the marginalized. (3) The poverty of supply side of education also can be a vicious cycle. When inadequate money is spent on public education, the quality of education is inevitably poor. When the teachers are recruited from the same system, their inputs into the learning processes are also poor.
Most regrettable is discrimination in education. Discrimination in education (even if you are in school or university) can come from ethnic, racial, religious, indigenous, class or gender basis. Most widespread discrimination in some regions is based on gender. Women are discriminated either on religious interpretations or cultural basis. All these religious or cultural interpretations are given by men! All these are difficult to unravel because of political reasons. Men dominate politics. During the pandemic, these interpretations have become strengthened on easy excuses.
Different Effects of the Pandemic
One of the most direct effects of the pandemic on education is the closure of schools and universities. It is a disaster. On school closures, UNESCO has collected data and UNICEF has compiled a substantial report. On university closures, the International Association of Universities (IAU) has collected information through a survey.
What are the key findings on school closures? (1) During one year between March 2020 and February 2021, schools in the whole world have been fully closed for 95 days and this means half the time intended for teaching and learning. (2) Countries in South America were the most affected with 158 days of full school closures, followed by countries in South Asia with 146 days. Countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region were the third most affected with an average of 101 days. All these means the poor and developing countries. (3) Worldwide, 214 million students have lost three fourths of school hours in 23 countries. Among these students, 168 million had missed all classroom hours in 14 countries due to school closures.
What are the key findings on university closures? IAU survey was conducted during March and April 2020 covering 109 countries. Almost all countries reported that they have been impacted by the pandemic and 59 percent of them replied that all campuses were closed at that time. In the case of Africa, closures reported were high as 77 percent. The main concern of 80 percent of responding institutions was on the impact on student enrolment in the new academic year. 46 percent believed impact would be on both local and international students. Private universities were more concerned about the impact on financial consequences.
In terms of research, 80 percent of higher education institutions have been directly impacted. The most common impact has been the cancellation of international travel (83 percent) and the cancellation or postponement of scientific conferences (81 percent). This is what happened even to the WUS conference although it is not directly a higher education institute or a research forum. Even at present, scientific projects are at risk of not being able to complete on time at various institutes and by individuals.
It is true that the pandemic, as a positive challenge, has opened up new research on Covid-19 and other diseases. However without being limited to medical and pharmaceutical research, social impacts of the pandemic also should be investigated and researched. Apart from valid restrictions on travel that has affected international cooperation and research travel, there has emerged unnecessary bureaucratic barriers in some countries.
For example, to participate at the WUS conference in Vienna, over a dozen of Sri Lankan academics have received funding from the Austrian ministries/universities. But for nearly two months now their leave, approvals and exist permits have been delayed unnecessarily. This appears infringing on academic freedom and educational benefits to the country. This is unfortunate.
Expansion of eLearning
Of course everything is not hopeless. Facing the Covid challenge the world has positively shifted to more and more eLearning. This trend has been there even before but not in this scale. This is easy in the university sector, but not so much in the school sector. This is easy in rich countries, but not in poor or developing countries.
According to the UNICEF report, school children in the countries with the longest duration of school closures are the ones who have had the lowest opportunity for fixed online connections. Although the radio or TV must have been used in these countries, these are not that effective as internet or zoom teaching. Interactive learning is something lost in these media.
The repercussions of school closures can be diverse and long standing. Through eLearning alone these cannot be rectified. Schools are important not only for children’s learning, but also for health, safety and well-being. Most vulnerable children in some countries have lost their single most nutritional meal a day. For children coming from dysfunctional (or violent) families, schools are also a safe and a pleasing place. In many countries schools also play a major role in immunization and health support.
Even in the university sector, the (quick) adoption of eLearning has not been easy. Although two-thirds of them had reported that they have replaced classroom teaching with distance teaching and learning, they reported that it has not come without challenges. The main challenges being access to technical infrastructure, competencies of both teachers and students to adopt them, and pedagogical impact on some specific fields of study. However in the medium term or in the long-run, eLearning can be an escape route from future pandemics, lockdowns or travel restrictions.
Facing the Challenge
The challenge for the university sector and academics is not limited to the pandemic or themselves alone. Without uplifting the school sector, the university sector cannot thrive or survive. Without addressing the education problems in poor countries, education in rich countries cannot prosper. This is also a moral obligation. This was a main message of the UNDP initiated sustainable goals, SDG 4. Now there is a clear setback for these goals because of the pandemic, initially to be achieved by 2030.
In answering the pandemic question, university academics or the World University Service should stand for full vaccination of all sections and particularly the school students, children of that age, university students and teachers and administrators in schools and universities. Vaccine hesitancy should be overcome and a booster might be necessary.
Universities in all countries should reach the broader communities and extend education, assistance and relief. They should have the academic freedom to do so. There can be risks involved. But this is a duty. If the vaccination programs are expedited and covered all countries, rich and poor, schools can be reopened fully soon or by 2022. There can be many mitigating and catchup measures that needs to be implemented in terms of learning and other ways. There can also be a necessity to develop and introduce new modalities in education. Blended or hybrid methods might be more appropriate. This is applicable to both schools and universities. University academics and academic cooperation between countries might be able to play a major role in this sphere.
There can be gaps that might emerge compared to the past. Truly estimating them and innovating devices to optimize the existing resources, while seeking necessary resources to bridge those gaps through international cooperation between governments, ministries of education and universities can be some tasks. Academics can take a lead. The main public policy advocacy of this article is for the universities and academics to get involved in school education more than before, and bring benefits to the society.
 iau_covid19_and_he_survey_report_final_may_2020.pdf (iau-aiu.net)