Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


For most of us, the past two or three months continue to seem surreal, a dystopia that we might read in science fiction books or avoid, in some of our cases, in movies.  Yet the COVID 19 pandemic  is real, it is now, it is global and it will be with us for a long time, both as the virus continues to spread, and even afterwards as its impact will be lasting and deep. This is perhaps the only prediction that any of us can make with certainty. Everything else is closer to speculation.

Nevertheless, imagining the future is what all of us are trying to do daily – in our private lives and in our professional lives. In both cases, changes will be inevitable and long-lasting and depending on our personal situation, the sector we work in and the policies being put in place by the State we live in, the adjustments will be more or less difficult, if not devastating. Around the world a new normal  is being invented.

In higher education, as in other sectors, the lock down was implemented quickly, with relative ease (all things considered) and successful impact in terms of public health. Universities shut down one after the other around the globe, moved as much activity as they could online and launched crisis management protocols to ensure students and staff were advised properly, taken care of and repatriated or sent home as needed. Quickly, universities found ways in which they could support efforts to respond to the health crisis and students were often at the forefront of inventing ways to help either as volunteers in their community, through research, or by proposing technological solutions to reduce risks of exposure to the virus or simply make daily tasks easier.

The mobilization was immediate and in the face of the crisis, solidarity and  collaboration  prevailed in higher education as in other sectors. This positive response has made the tragic impact on human lives and even the economic hardships that spread as quickly as the virus, more bearable.

Moving from lockdown and crisis mode to resuming operations for the medium and long-term presents a much bigger challenge, and the political and social discord is quick to take hold in many countries. Just as governments worldwide are inventing strategies for economic survival, academics and university leaders are inventing options to continue pursuing their primary missions. In general, the main problem is balancing the imperatives of health security with those of economic survival while protecting rights and freedoms, political stability and social welfare.

For universities, the challenge is to find ways to offer again full-fledged learning and research opportunities of quality for all students, a safe and productive working environment for researchers and faculty members. This is likely to be even more challenging during a time of quasi global recession and economic downturn which will affect institutional funding but also the financial capacity of students and their families to enroll in higher education.

The crisis has shown the potential of online teaching and learning, online meetings,  online sharing  of expertise and experiences and online joint elaboration of workplans and proposals. But it also revealed huge gaps in the delivery capacities on the part of some institutions as well as the gaps in capacity to actively participate and take up what is being offered on the part of individuals. A tremendous effort will be required on both sides of this equation in order to ensure that education and research needs are met in a satisfactory manner using virtual means as a main mode of delivery.

In international education, the calls to focus less on physical mobility, still too exclusive rather than available to all, and more on other aspects of internationalization are not new but will certainly have a much stronger echo purely out of necessity. Virtual mobility is already an alternative to physical mobility, but so far still marginal in terms of numbers. Will it prove to be a viable  replacement for the mass mobility that has been the target for so long in Europe and elsewhere? Will it have the same impacts in terms of learning and personal development? Will the business model that accompanies virtual as opposed to physical mobility suffice to sustain those universities that count on the foreign tuition fee revenues?

Most importantly though, how will universities provide the internationally and interculturally rich learning environment which has been deemed essential for quality education? Of course,  the answer lies in curriculum and pedagogy as has been claimed by many scholars in the field. This shift to a greater focus on curriculum and the classroom has not proven easy in the past and will require both a concerted effort and time. However, as it is both a more inclusive approach, and forms part  of a greener, more sustainable approach to interactions for international academic networking and collaboration,  can make greater use of virtual platforms, it is likely to gain in popularity and  quality.

At present, going back to business as usual seems unlikely – not in the economy, not in our day-to- day  life,  not in higher  education.   There  are  many who see  the  pandemic as an opportunity  for a much needed global and comprehensive ‘reset’ that will bring fundamental changes for the welfare of humanity and the planet. Yet, there are many dangerous signs as well.

Politically, such a ‘reset’ could be detrimental to democracy. Indeed, the crisis has brought its share of nationalistic, xenophobic and authoritarian trends around the world. Questions have been raised about democracy as an effective regime to combat this or any other future pandemic. We have seen even the most pro-international and pro-integration countries in Europe close their  borders and seek national solutions. Multilateralism and international solidarity took a beating during this inward-looking phase of the pandemic. When and how political leaders, decision  makers  and citizens will again feel confident in decisions made beyond their nation-state, and at times beyond their local government, remains a question. Similarly, in economic terms, the ‘reset’ may be fundamental, moving away from globalization of production and multilateral free trade, or it may simply mean new trading patterns and an even more ferocious competition.

In higher education the ‘reset’ will also be necessary and the discussions and statements urging  for  a complete overhaul are already populating our virtual world. But this is also not without risk. The agenda and priority setting will certainly give prominence to virtual and online offers, but these can also perpetuate inequality and threaten access and success for the less advantaged. It may give priority to STEM disciplines and related research, thus further undermine social sciences and humanities. We may find it easier to collaborate within existing, well-established and familiar networks rather than opening up to new partners which may need our collaboration even more. How, in this new setting, will we ensure that personal contacts for teamwork, brainstorming, respectful intercultural discussions, creativity, instilling empathy and many other aspects of  cognitive learning are maintained? The limits of the virtual mode of operations cannot be ignored, nor can the personal, face-to-face interaction be under-estimated. The need for change must also not do away with collegiality, undermine fundamental values of academic  freedom and autonomy, in other words, throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

The COVID 19 crisis will certainly bring forth a re-ordering of priorities for many higher education institutions and may have a positive impact. Yes, it may pave the way for a greater emphasis on new dimensions of internationalization, there may be a greater focus on recruiting local students, on IT infrastructure and staff development for improved online design and delivery of programs, more emphasis on narrowing the equity gaps in access and success of learners, an even greater attention to issues of sustainable development and responding to the demands of a potentially changed demand for labour, with less emphasis on the global market and international trade, and many others.

In addition to juggling new and pressing priorities in the months and years to come, the longer-term future will be an on-going balancing act between some new or at least more prominent considerations – the costs of a no risk society, individual freedom, and quality of life and issues of economic survival, environmental sustainability, equity considerations and global solidarity. Each society, within its own context and in the light of its own resources and capacities, will be grappling with these issues.

Higher education and research institutions – as institutions that command respect and usually represent the progressive forces in society – will be called upon and must play several roles in the post COVID 19 geopolitical landscape. They will be expected to critically assess the impact of this pandemic from a variety of perspectives – economic, political, social but also scientific and academic as major shifts in power and influence will be taking place. In the new-found credibility in science, they will have the renewed trust to be at the forefront of the efforts to resolve this health crisis and potentially prevent others. More generally, universities have the potential to play a critical guiding role, using their full arsenal of expertise in all the disciplines to ensure that collaboration prevails, that the long-term and collective big picture is not lost in the struggle and need for immediate and individual solutions. As many have said, this global pandemic, as tragic and disruptive as it is, may also bring a host of opportunities to reset humanity’s future path in a new, more caring, compassionate and ecologically sustainable direction.


Eva Egron-Polak is the former Secretary General of the International Association of Universities. Today, she is active as independent consultant in international higher education, serving on many boards and advisory committees around the world.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA will be publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.