University Challenges: The role of higher education in a post-COVID world

How have the massive shifts caused by the COVID-19 crisis catalysed change in the responsibilities and development of institutions of higher education? Banner image: Shutterstock/Kzenon

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.


When I wrote for the Forum in 2017, my theme was uncertainty—couched at that time in the context of geopolitical shifts and the ongoing turmoil in the global economy—and of how we as universities needed to take account of that uncertainty, and provide the necessary foundation to give students the confidence to move forwards.

Barely three years later, we have the tectonic plate shift of COVID that has rightly catalysed the challenges for our wider role:

  • How do we support the economy to have the right skills, provide employers with graduates who can immediately add value and help retrain existing employees for a digital world?
  • Beyond our current students, how do we offer opportunity and hope to those impacted by the pandemic, especially schoolchildren or those who will need to retrain? Our children are facing uncertainty around their qualifications, educational pathways and, more concerningly, their mental health. How do we all give them hope and support?
  • Can we build a co-operation and collaboration model—between employers, schools, colleges and universities—as an approach to the post-COVID recovery?
  • How do we ensure that the benefits of education and innovation can be available to all?
What they found much harder was not having university to help build connections and relationships—student to student, student to academic, student to the institution, and student to their discipline.

Much has been written about how institutions adapted, moved at pace and worked to provide for our students. From the vantage point of a university leadership role, the big story of the pandemic is that community became the dominant theme—a sense of belonging being critical, shared challenges, the academy as a community with an interlinked present and future. Students accepted the learning challenge of the pandemic with incredible agility—something we should constantly praise. What they found much harder was not having university to help build connections and relationships—student to student, student to academic, student to the institution, and student to their discipline.

As we now look to adapt to a new landscape, several things seem critical. Firstly, we must not forget that we have a responsibility as educators to not just profess our disciplines brilliantly (which we must do!), but also to consider how our students relate to themselves, their discipline, their community and their future. That is very challenging—we don’t do that naturally. Secondly, we need to reflect on our values as, for me, it is these values that should help define the broader sectoral response. Thinking about what more is needed, what goes above the discipline, is vital. Students need to be effective across disciplines and cultures and appreciate the power of debate.

As I introduced earlier, the issue of having a focus on employability is key but universities must avoid being too aligned to current trends. We should not ignore them, and for some prospective students it will be important to know that we care about what happens next.

But universities are at their most powerful when they focus on capacity to deal with all that life presents—in the discipline but also in the wider aspects of the learning experience.

This may feel a very narrow—even self-serving—perspective. I don’t mean it to be. My final hope is that universities can break outside of their conventions and see themselves as integral to economic and social progress. My worry is that we have ill-formed concepts (education for all, skills, “levelling up”, lifelong learning, micro-credentials etc.). These have struggled to show real dividends, and more particularly have struggled to deliver the same rate of return to individuals that comes from “conventional” pathways. Indeed, that is a core problem—we have a distinction between the “conventional” student and others coming from alternative pathways.

More on the Forum Network: Lifelong Learning and Nerd Immunity by Francesca Borgonovi, Head of Skills Analysis at the OECD Centre for Skills

In many ways we need to return to the concept of the civic university—the university as a porous and open presence in a city or town or region, a place where you learn but also where families picnic—embedded and visible. We can also revisit the university as a catalyst for growth and development by ensuring that we can create ecosystems of education—schools, vocational and further education, apprentice systems and universities working together not in a linear way, but in a way that facilitates students moving between structures. With that ecosystem in place, we can get the leverage needed to nest the developments like stackable or micro-credentials and make them really work for us, each playing their part, each respected in their role as institutions but also by colleagues and students.

Finally, one genie is out of the bottle and will never go back. While the move online created exceptional challenges for educators and students, it created a degree of flexibility in learning that reflected the heterogeneity of students and their needs. Students do reflect the image we have of them—young, enjoying all that life and learning gives. But they are also older, are carers, have jobs, have children—and they want to enjoy all that learning gives, too.

The inner economist in me feels that the supply of education changed in the pandemic, but so too did the demand side—and for the better in terms of empowering education for all. The challenge to the university is to embrace this and recognise that we are, at a fundamental level, communities in a common endeavour of learning.

Watch: Andreas Schleicher, Director, Education Directorate, OECD on Education for sustainability and higher Education in the 21st century

Read the OECD policy brief: The Potential of Online Learning for Adults: Early Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis, a discussion of the potential of online learning to expand the opportunities for adult learning, while addressing some key issues that the crisis has highlighted.

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