Crisis Management

Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education



This report discusses major challenges faced by higher education around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly examining the impacts of the crisis on teaching, student learning, research, finance, and international education. The outbreak of the pandemic since early 2020 has changed the world in an unprecedented way. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are severely affected by this global health crisis across the globe; however, the impacts have varied across different regions, institutions, and social groups.

Critical reviews show that developing countries and disadvantaged groups suffer most from the sudden shifting to emergent online learning because of a lack of access to tablets, computers, and the internet. Students from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds have faced larger learning losses than have their peers in relatively economically advanced countries, further translating into deeper losses of lifetime earnings and economic losses to nations. Nonetheless, the shift to online learning also brings opportunities for faster curriculum development in some developing countries because of the rapid circulation of online education.

The pandemic has also interrupted the normal operation of research activities. Early career researchers are facing serious setbacks in launching their research agenda when the pandemic places restrictions on lab work, travelling and research ethics. The lack of in person interactions not only influence the knowledge circulation among researchers and students but also challenge their mental well-being. The gloomy job markets, together with the political and social chaos during the pandemic, create challenges to early career researchers, faculties in temporary contracts and recent graduates trying to find a job or secure their first contracts.

The internationalization of higher education has been greatly influenced by border closures and the rising tide of nationalism. The wellbeing of international students has been largely neglected by national policies during the pandemic, and rising discrimination has pushed some students to study at home or change their destinations. The changes in international student flows can have significant effects on Anglophone countries that rely on international students for income. However, extant literature suggests that elite universities are less likely to be influenced, while institutions with lower global rankings will face tremendous challenges for governance. This report also discusses and highlights major policy implications for managing higher education in support of the Education Agenda 2030 in the post-COVID-19 crisis period.


Policy Recommendations

International and National Levels

  1. Strengthening international and regional collaboration through university associations or international organizations. For example, the IAU and regional associations like the Association of African Universities could promote deep collaborations among member institutions in support of teaching, student learning and research and wider engagements.
  2. National governments across the globe should work closely with the UNESCO to co-develop policies and strategies in bridging the widening gap between the developed and less developed world during / after the COVID-19 crisis in co-promoting Education 2030 Agenda.
  3. Policies that are conducive to the mobility of scholars and students should be promulgated. The value of personnel mobility for academic development and national mutual trust should be a focus, and normal academic exchanges being restricted by political conflicts should be avoided. Virtual / technology-enabled platforms for promoting international / regional collaboration through working with international organizations like UNESCO or University Associations should be properly adopted.
  4. As HED is a priority for social construction, HEIs should be given sufficient funds for their operation and should be encouraged to carry out scientific research in response to public crises.
  5. Construction of information technology infrastructure should be strengthened, and connectivity for HEIs and students should be increased. HEIs should be helped to build their capacity to effectively deliver online education, and support should be provided for students to facilitate online learning especially in the less developed world.
  6. Concerted efforts should be put together to promote inter-regional cooperation. Appropriate adoption of technology-enabled systems should take place to support the less developed countries for teaching, student learning, research and internationalization.
  7. Different stakeholders, including NGOs and civil societies, should be encouraged to provide support to at-risk HEIs, teachers and students.

Institutional Level

  1. The transformation and reinvention of HED should be promoted. University governance, teaching and learning, scientific research, student mobility and traditional school-running models should be re-examined, and corresponding optimizations and adjustments should be made.
  2. HEIs should strive to diversify funding sources and improve their ability to resist risks. Overreliance on government funds and tuition fees for international students may have undesirable consequences and even lead to bankruptcy in times of crisis. Searching for appropriate support with a private-public-community funding mix to sustain HED development would be key.
  3. A high-quality and stable network platform should be built. Academic staff should carry out online teaching and research activities and build virtual laboratories. Students should be provided with diversified online courses, blended teaching should be implemented, and interest in learning should be stimulated.
  4. HEIs should participate deeply in building a society in the post-pandemic era. HEIs must find ways to effectively deal with public crises, especially when society has higher expectations for them. HEIs should also enhance the sense of responsibility for serving society, expand service channels and increase participation.
  5. The physical and mental health and well-being of students and staff should be a focus. Students who study online at home are more prone to symptoms such as obesity, depression, and anxiety. HEIs should meet the needs of students and provide necessary consulting services.
  6. A platform should be built for extracurricular activities to promote peer exchanges and social interaction. Online learning restricts students’ activity space to the family, and the long-term lack of social interaction has an adverse effect on the development of students.
  7. HEIs should institutionalize crisis management measures, including transparent administrative processes and communication platforms with both students and staff.
  8. HEIs should adopt appropriate policies / strategies in supporting early career researchers, young PhD graduates and women researchers in pursuit of an academic / research career. Inter-regional and international collaboration among
  9. HEIs should be encouraged with strong support from national governments to advance the Education 2030 Agenda
Download Full Paper

This paper was commissioned by UNESCO and is part of 3rd World Higher Education Conference organized by UNESCO on May 18-20, 2022, with the purpose of enhancing the contribution of higher education institutions and systems world-wide, under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, its pledge to leave no one behind, and looking at the Futures of Education. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and should not be attributed to UNESCO. This paper can be cited with the following reference: Mok, K. H., 2022, Impact of Covid-19 on higher education. Paper commissioned for the World Higher Education Conference 18-20 May 2022.