The Future of Higher Education after Covid-19: A Silver lining

There are numerous lessons to learn from this current pandemic along with various challenges and certainly more opportunities than before. The education sector has been one of the most affected sectors as the pandemic has transformed the whole concept of education with online classes. While the experts in Pakistan are getting prepared for the end of this pandemic with daily drop in cases, educationists and older students are now evaluating the impact that this period will have on the sector post pandemic. Based on the recent discussions by national and international experts in education sector, following interesting insights were found that should be looked into by government, universities as well as parents of students ready to enter the universities.

COVID-19 has accentuated the current problems of Higher Education

One thing that most of the experts agree upon is the fact that there is no such thing as after-COVID. A transformation is in progress and there is no return from here. The key question for higher education is what they will look like after COVID-19.

Dr. Adil Najam, Dean of Boston University effectually highlighted some of the problems in higher education system of Pakistan that COVID has uncovered including the following:

  • There is an oversupply of universities in Pakistan that cost more than the value they offer. Branding is used as a value while focus should be purely on learning process and skill set achieved.
  • The skill set of teachers is weak in terms of quality as most of them fail to equip students for practical jobs out in the world.
  • The boom of online courses and zoom meetings for universities along with tutorials at YouTube with minimal costs have exposed the weaknesses and deficiencies in higher education. Universities now have to work even harder to market themselves and display wide range of benefits to students than before.

Micro Credential Platforms versus Value of University Degree

One of the most significant challenges and an opportunity in disguise is presented by the online explosion of platforms that offer micro-credentials for courses from renowned universities around the globe. These universities include the Ivy League universities like Oxford, Harvard and MIT as well as tech giants like Microsoft and Google that provide online diplomas, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees to students at less than quarter costs. The platforms of Coursera, edX and Khan Academy have seen more than 100 and even 300 times growth in their online students’ registration during the pandemic. What’s more appealing is the fact that micro-credentials from these platforms are now accepted by educational institutes as well as organizations depending on relevant skill set obtained.

As the pandemic slows its spread, parents and students have become more aware of the cost-value equation for education and thus, universities whose sole preposition is to give degrees are bound to be affected. It is significant to note that universities in Pakistan, specifically science, engineering and IT related campuses, still lag behind tremendously in terms of cutting-edge technology, education, research, equipment and hands-on approach compared to universities in US, UK, Australia and other developed nations. Therefore, the value of online degree or diploma from Harvard University or MIT will still surpass degree from a middle tier university in Pakistan in terms of skill development.

Un-bundling of Higher Education and Blended Learning

Yasser Bashir, CEO of Arbisoft, a fast growing software house in South East Asia, is one of the strong advocates of micro-credential platforms and blended learning. Mr. Bashir in a recent conference in Pakistan highlighted the fact that micro-credential platforms like edX and Coursera have un-bundled higher education by providing specialized courses and are a wake up call for universities in Pakistan. The facilities provided by most of the middle tier and even some top tier universities of Pakistan are far behind in terms of quality and skill development as higher education is not synchronized with innovative and research-based approach adopted by top universities around the globe.

Future of Higher Education in Pakistan

The registration of Pakistani students and young professionals with online learning platforms has increased manifold during the pandemic. However, problems in Pakistan are different compared to other countries. Some of the points to consider include the following:

  • The market for online education is much more fragmented as infrastructures to support such learning is missing. Computer devices, internet connection and space to study is a major hindrance for majority of population.
  • Availability of public universities, despite their good or bad quality, provides a cheap alternative to many who want degrees.
  • While many countries are trying out the AR (Artificial Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) technology for training students in medical, computer and engineering fields to cut costs of campuses, such technology will be very costly for Pakistan in terms of training teachers and installing equipment.

There is no doubt that adjustment is going to happen but it will be slow in Pakistan. Getting education and perspectives from around the globe is going to be beneficial for students as long as subjects of interest do not require local contextualization such as economics, political science, financial markets or similar subjects. The five star ratings that courses from top universities receive by students around the globe including Pakistan are a wake up call for universities to start working on quality of education and skill set of their teachers to prepare students for a global market rather than outdated system of education. The experts predict culling of programs and institutes whose sole preposition is to give degrees. A rise in Micro-credentials platforms, campus light universities and futuristic technologies is also expected.

In primary education, we can already see a rapid rise in STEM schools in Pakistan which shows eagerness of parents in general to catch up with the global education system. Similarly, in higher education, parents are now realizing the meaning of value of money in terms of education which is advance skills set for students, learning something that they haven’t learned in high school and ability for practical application of knowledge when they graduate.The approach of education has been changed during this pandemic and the exposure of students to the vast number of courses available online will un-bundle higher education for good. At the end of this pandemic, it is expected that the best of universities and the best of technology will stay.

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