Covid-19 and Higher Education
Interview with Peter Maassen - Professor in Higher Education Studies at UiO
Peter Maassen. Foto: Universitetet i Oslo
How has Covid-19 affected higher education?
It is a unique crisis, we never have seen before. First and foremost it affect international higher education: student mobility. It has been a fifty percent reduction in full degree international students around the world, and we are still waiting for how many internationally students actually showing up in US, UK, Australia, so it might be even more dramatic than that. And can you imagine, 50 percent reduction, what that means for affected university. Exchange programs are standing still, also unique since it started in 1980s. Exchange programs have become an very important part of the operation of university across the world, especially in Europe. Research is affected, there is no mobility of staff, no international meetings. Overall there has can be a stop in international student mobility.
Institution in Norway has adapted extremely well. The assumption was that it just would last for a short period, but now we now it will last longer, be we do not know for how long.
Is the international dimension the most effected aspect of higher education?
It is the most directly affected aspect. A more formal part and a growing interest in international higher education, at least since it developed in the 1980s, strategies and agencies have seen a decrease in student mobility. There have for example been more difficult to get a visa, many embassies have closed. These student are following education online and many say that they expect that for a short period, but if it last for longer, then they are not shore if they are stick to being enrolled in a foreign institution. Why should a brit be enrolled in a course in Norway, if the same course are being offered in Britain? Of course they might avoid tuition fees, but apart from that the experience, that many international students say is an important part of the decision to study abroad, social environment, a new context, meeting new people, building international networks, if that falls away that has a major impact on the way institutions have to think about their international study program offerings and if the want to continue that.
It has also an impact on nationally higher education. What does it mean with online coursing? In the US there have been studies about this, and up to 40 percent of all bachelor students in public higher education in the spring and summer have had a decrease in their mental health. Many have depression, feel isolation, so universities have to invest in support structures there. Also in Britain, 34 percent have indicated that they feeling their mental health is affected by the corona pandemy. So it is quite a dramatic dramatic impact.
How essential is face to face interaction for good learning? Could we provide the same learning opportunities by providing courses in digital format?
Some forms of higher education cannot be offered online. Laboratory work, medical practices is impossible to offer online. You can have some forms of simulations, but overall within natural sciences, engineering and medical sciences the large part for advanced education have to be done in a physical environment. So that is a very important element. When it comes to using digital elements, we have been seen a gradually move forward, but it was a great reluctance in general to move to a situation where you rely on digital technology. The covid crisis have forced us into that arena, so we are now forced to think in digital terms. How do we reach our student when they cannot be physically present on campus? For that, the experiences of the last decades are okay, but we are thrown into deep water by having to learn what work and not, since the disadvantages of all the work that has been done in using digital technology in the last decades have not been done in an experimental setting. So we are finding out now, under pressure. But if you look at the traditionally student group of 18 to 25 year olds, the social interaction is extremely important, it is a way of life. I mean, one of the reasons why so many students around the world have decided to go to college is the social. Of course the preparation for the labour market is key, it has been more important in government policies recently, but this building up network, social interaction, and group work etcetera. Part of it can be replaced by using digital technologies, but the social interaction is something people are looking forward to that they are missing. Can you imagine how you can build a community within a specific academic area, whatever large the discipline, how do you build a community if the students have never met each other. If they are only online, within their own bedroom, or office or whatever they are. A main thing we learn from the crisis is how digital technologies can be used more effectively, also when it comes to learning strategies, there is a lot of work to be done, we have to refrain from thinking that digital technology can replace fully traditionally ways of teaching and learning. That would be a major mistake. So in that sense, an example from the UK in July they asked all first year students that had applied to higher education and gotten an offer, how many of them are thinking of deferring their situation to a situation after covid, due to the online offering of education, and between 20 and 25 percent said that they already have decided to defer their studies. While quite a large part said that they would start anyhow, and a part was uncertain. But it means that up to 25 percent of student in Britain said that they have already decided to postpone their studies, because they preferred the social interaction setting. Again it does not mean that digital technology cannot be central in education, they are and they should be, but social interaction is a key element of higher education for the traditional student group. And I think we will move back to that direction to finding a new balance between online education and tradiontinally ways of teaching and learning once this crisis is over.