Higher Education’s Response to COVID-19
A Landscape Map
For USAID, investing in higher education (HE) is not only about strengthening the development capacity of host countries. Higher education also plays a much larger role in advancing a partner country’s journey to self-reliance by providing quality and relevant education and workforce training; engaging and strengthening networks and communities; and advancing knowledge and research, as described in the USAID Higher Education Program Framework.
In 2020, the COVID-19 global crisis has thrust the role higher education can play into the spotlight. As the virus continues to spread within and across borders, governments and higher education institutions (HEIs) are faced with tough decisions on how to continue to provide education and what role HEIs and HE can play to respond to the global pandemic.
Interns through the Virtual Student Federal Service and Payne Fellowship programs developed the Higher Education Response to COVID-19 Landscape Map in 24 USAID partner countries to help to inform these decisions and build the knowledge base on the development impacts of the virus vis-a-vis HE systems.
The landscape map identifies the actions taken by HE systems and HEIs in select USAID partner countries to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on students, institutions, communities, and countries. This landscape map is not an analysis of USAID actions to reduce the impact of the virus but is focused on the actions of the HEIs and HE systems in these partner countries.
The analysis, based on observations from publicly available information from national education agencies and 144 HEIs across the 24 countries, focused on exploring the resiliency of HE systems and institutions and understanding the role they have played as central actors in responding to COVID-19. The analysis will also inform future HE programming and investments, while contributing to two USAID HE Learning Agenda Questions, namely: 1. How can the viability and effectiveness of online and other forms of distance education be improved? 2. How can HE systems and HEIs play a more active role in the development and strengthening of national and regional innovation ecosystems?
Key Takeaways from the Landscape Map
The landscape map revealed several global trends on the ways HEIs and HE systems have responded to the global pandemic. Let’s take a closer look at the higher level findings across the four key areas of interest in this analysis.
1. Continuity of Learning. COVID-19 forced full closures of HEIs globally, especially in the early phases of the pandemic. Although governments and HEIs sought to provide distance learning to ensure continuity of learning, they faced several equity and accessibility challenges because of pre-existing digital divides and resource constraints. For example, UNESCO estimates that 89% of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers, and 82% lack internet access. Several examples of efforts to expand access were found, including launching a television channel dedicated to education in Senegal and securing fixed prices for internet and data plans for students in the Dominican Republic. National education agencies primarily supported governments to develop e-learning plans for primary and secondary education levels, resulting in HEIs having to create their own plans.
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2. Research and Innovation. Despite challenges in ensuring the equitable continuity of learning, HEIs across all five regions demonstrated their capacity and resilience through the research and innovation efforts aimed at mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 within their communities. Facing disruptions in the global supply chain, many HEIs produced rapid, locally-sourced solutions for much-needed medical supplies like personal protective equipment, sanitizing materials, and low-cost ventilators. Innovative examples included the development of mobile disinfecting units in high-trafficked and high-risk areas in cities in Vietnam and the repurposing of animal health labs for COVID testing in Guatemala.
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3. Community Engagement. HEIs supported their local communities by providing them with public-health focused services. In some countries, HEIs also played an important role in implementing online awareness campaigns, providing counseling and mental well-being services, and coordinating with other services to deliver other essentials such as hygiene and nutritional products to vulnerable populations facing economic hardship.
4. Communications Strategy. Government education agencies and HEIs played a critical role in communicating relevant information about COVID-19 to their stakeholders through their websites and social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube). The types of information shared varied within and across regions ranging from general information on COVID-19 trends, public health guidance, or social assistance programs to more specific information about COVID-19 and HE, including resolutions passed, health guidelines for reopening HEIs, and distance learning resources.
The landscape map provides important insights not only into the resilience of HEIs and HE systems when confronted with a sudden disruption to learning, but also the potential of these institutions to serve as central actors in crisis response and locally-led development. The findings also reinforce the need to continue to build robust and resilient HE systems that can withstand unforeseen shocks such as the current global pandemic.