The emergence of the COVID pandemic was and remains a crisis for higher education institutions around the world. What is absolutely clear is that the existing trend to use more tools of online learning or distance learning had been growing before COVID, but now it has exploded, and higher education will not likely ever look quite the same. As in many sectors of business, institutions of higher education are very rapidly learning of the growing utilities as well as the drawbacks of online learning that will certainly outlast the COVID pandemic.
Unfortunately, a lot of institutions will not make it financially in these challenging times. That was already increasingly the case for many US state and private colleges and universities facing financial problems before COVID. But now it feels that we are in the midst of a revolution of how higher education will be organized nationally and globally. And that actually is a good thing. The operational and financial model in many places must adapt to rapidly changing educational markets and job market outcomes. In the United States for the past several decades, skyrocketing tuition and massive debt amongst students already did not seem like a sustainable proposition. Anybody who thinks we will return to “normal” after COVID is reasonably under control is wrong, and who would really want to go back to “normal” anyway?
There is always opportunity in crisis, and it is the most innovative and creative institutions that are likely to make the transition, if not transformation of higher education most effectively. National and international networking of university resources will be far more prevalent. We have learned, for example, that we can run really interesting, world class lectures series without having to fly speakers from around the world to Bishkek or anywhere else. That seems pretty obvious, but it was not something we often thought of doing because we did not have to. For my institution, the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), these virtual lectures are especially valuable because it is challenging to get top speakers to make such a long trip to a relatively remote place.
Collaborative teaching and research across institutions will also be facilitated by technologies helpful for online learning. AUCA and Bard College faculty had partnered to co-teach a number of courses in recent years. Visiting faculty do not necessarily need to physically visit to teach. Gaps in institutional faculty resources can thus be more easily filled. I expect to see increasing networking of multiple institutions to make use of complementarities and synergies. This is a major goal of the Open Society University Network (OSUN) initiated at the start of 2020 in which AUCA is a founding member along with institutions from North America, Europe, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.
“Although “globalization” has experienced a number of setbacks in recent years and especially this year with the COVID pandemic, the globalization of higher education will continue to broaden and deepen.”
The importance of the brick and mortar campus, so to speak, will not go away, but it will be augmented by a proliferation of new online opportunities where I think the battle for the future of higher education will mostly be fought. Nevertheless, an institutional model focusing on building infrastructure and providing a more Club Med-like environment for students to get that “real college experience” looks increasingly antiquarian. Those colleges and universities spending more time and money on how to most efficiently network their educational and social mission both internally and externally; i.e. break down the “walls” of our institutions are more likely to thrive in the future.
Andrew Kuchins is the President of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA). He is a world renowned scholar/practitioner on Russia and Eurasia. Dr. Kuchins has held faculty, research, and administrative positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Most recently, from 2015-2019, he was a Research Professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service where he taught and ran the Russia Futures program.