Pandemic-induced changes in university operations are the prelude to a new era in the history of higher education.
Universities have long stood as privileged and well-protected sites serving the creation, structuration, and dissemination of knowledge, both theoretical and practical. The complex but relatively short history of the modern university allows us, however, to track a course of intellectual endeavour characterized by recurrent resilience, ingenuity, and innovation.
The best performing universities worldwide have always been those that managed to secure the continued backing of both state and society to such extent that the idea of the modern university has become congenial to the narratives of national unity, identity, and intellectual supremacy. The Imperial College London, Oxford, Stanford, Yale, the Sorbonne, to name but some, are all regarded as emblematic universities and iconic representations of the vitality, strength, and creativity of the societies to which they belong and in which they continue to function and evolve.
Universities have impeccably adapted themselves to the upheavals of history and survived global wars, genocides, and periods of political strife and ideological discord. As such, most international universities revel in their discourse of tradition and continuity and in their capacity to preserve, create, appropriate, and disseminate knowledge. But all major and historic universities have lamentably opted for slow-paced change and transformation.
Revisiting the history of the university as an institution has always seemed of particular importance in academia. Nevertheless, the immediate context of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it all the more urgent for us to reconsider the present reality of universities all over the world, especially in these hard times of physical isolation and country-wide closures.
Millions of students and faculty have had to leave their once-natural habitat and try instead to set up and engage with alternative forms of academic networking and affiliation away from classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and auditoriums. The sudden and pervasive spread of the pandemic has caught us all by surprise.
Unprecedented changes in higher education throw the university system into question
It is the first time in history that the global academic community has found itself under mounting and urgent pressure to respond to the needs and rights of its students away from campus and away from those moated walls that stand erect and overbearing in stone and steel.
This has prompted many questions in various circles about the nature and future of higher education in an increasingly globalized world. Most stakeholders have reacted to these questions by stressing the fact the future of higher education institutions (HEIs) lies in information technology and all-inclusive distance-learning plans.
The University of Cambridge has already suspended most of its in-person classes for most of 2021 and opted instead for synchronous online teaching and distance learning. Many universities in Europe and elsewhere will undoubtedly follow suit, or at least choose to limit the number of their students on campus or partly use online teaching methods to complement conventional lecturing and tutoring.
The draconian anti-risk measures all HEIs have implemented, which seem at first glance as natural and logical reactions to the threats posed by the spread of coronavirus, are a prelude to the beginning of a new era in the history of higher education. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, universities marketed distance learning and online delivery of academic services as trappings of instructional sophistication and excellence. However, they were never seen as core and substantial strategies in universities’ mission of formulating, preserving, and spreading knowledge.
For students to receive their degrees cum laude, they have had to comply with the routine and mandatory practice of attending seminars and establishing face-to-face contact with their tutors and mentors in classrooms and labs.
Revisiting higher education in a globalized context
COVID-19 offers perhaps the best opportunity for the stakeholders in the field of education to review the idea of the university by relocating it within the context of globalization. The university we need for the future is the one which not only preserves the tradition of academic excellence, but also moves forward to ensure ongoing traditions accommodate newly devised approaches to education, as dictated by the pressures and changes of the present.
Technology has reached a stunning level of sophistication and has touched many different aspects of our daily lives. It is inconceivable not to see the power of technology play a central role in the act of education and the world of academia. The spread and popularity of technology will help societies at large see the need to redefine the mission of the university, and with that the philosophy of education.
Universities are not just buildings even if they have always insisted on remaining impregnable, elitist, and impervious to public access. A university must represent a powerhouse of intellectual ingenuity, civic culture, and social integration. The new idea of the university requires rethinking in such intelligible and focused ways to bring each citizen to recognize the importance of university education as a liberating and empowering experience.
There is only one sure way of transforming the university into a more open, globally accessible, democratic, and vibrant establishment. The world must seize the day to consider the creation of what I prefer to designate the “new global university” (NGU).
The NGU: Shifting the paradigm of higher education
Most prestigious and world-class universities stand out by the quality and splendor of their buildings, facilities, and the stringently competitive admission requirements they advertise on web portals. The new global university has to make a statement of its own through the actual diversity of its community of staff and students, and by its power to network and influence academia irrespective of the time difference, geographical location, and cultural background.
The new global university is an open access establishment influenced and enriched by the cultural and intellectual import of its community across distances and locations. It is a structure neither constrained by place nor by parochial insignias of governments and states. Faculty can apply to join the NGU from all regions of the planet and must have at their disposal the best means and methods to serve and empower communities of students and scholars worldwide.
The installation of alternative but technologically and ethically advanced academic structures as substitutes to traditional HEIs is not an idealistic project. Over the past few months, communities of scholars and students have managed to engineer unprecedented ways of reaching out to each other and engaging one another on multiple levels. They have done so at a rate that only a couple of months ago would have seemed almost impossible to imagine, or at best unproductive.
The value of technology in restructuring academic delivery
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns have caused more than a flutter in the world of communication and cyberspace. Thousands of synchronous and asynchronous online conferences have been organized and delivered around the globe. Online teaching has never been as popular and widespread as it is today.
Social and video chatting apps such as Google Hangouts, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Cisco Webex, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook, among others, have logged massive downloads and have been exploited in almost all spheres of human activity, professional and otherwise. Work from home (WFH) has become a fact of life for millions of professionals, including teachers. It has saved their lives, as it has provided an efficient and practical alternative for on-site employment.
Like everyone else, educators have had to open up to the demands of families and students outside classrooms. They have had to create virtual classrooms and utilize the technological tools they are most adept at using and implementing. The use of these apps has facilitated tasks for families, students, and teachers. This comes as more than 80% of the world’s student population is outside schools and universities.
There is no better time for rethinking the idea and future of higher education than today, as the world seems to have realized that universities matter the most not as buildings, but as global networks for the production and exchange of skills and ideas. The world has, in the current health crisis, learned to think “outside the box” and devise novel methods and tools to pre-empt localized closures and keep the vital mission of the university alive.
Seizing the COVID-crisis to collaboratively revisit higher education
The new global university (NGU) is as such a concrete mise-en-oeuvre of the necessity to rethink and reformulate the idea of knowledge. Knowledge must be transferable, universal, negotiable, and transmissible within spaces free of geographic barriers and cultural inhibitions. The establishment of the NGU should, however, never take place at the total disruption of the existing structures of higher education.
The NGU will be more of an alliance of world universities as they complement and empower one another to serve students and scholars at all times and in all places, and to respond to emerging global challenges all at the same time with shared visions and savoir-faire. All major world organizations, trusts, governments, consortiums of education professionals, and technology providers must come together and contribute to the project of setting up an alliance of world universities to give rise to the NGU. This university paradigm should define the new millennium.
Some countries have already made decisions at a local scale in response to the crippling effect of enforced lockdowns. In China, for example, the ministries of education and information technology set up a cloud-based teaching and learning platform and prompted the upgrading of “a suite of education infrastructure” designed to serve educators and students even after the full containment of the global pandemic.
In Morocco, the Ministry of Higher Education banned all in-person pedagogical activities on campuses until the confinement ends. It asked all universities, private and public, to contribute to the building of a national and publicly accessible database, in collaboration with the National Center for Scientific and Technical Research (CNRST) and national television and radio stations. Professors have joined in on a large-scale level and have substantially enriched their universities’ websites with PDF materials and downloadable, recorded video and audio lectures.
In times of crisis, it is always possible to find or engineer solutions in response to pressing circumstances and repeated requests by society at large. Following these considerable efforts in sustaining the delivery of academic services in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of the university is likely to undergo significant changes and transformation. The virtual presence of universities all over the world will continue to evolve and expand, and have a knock-on effect on the acts of teaching, learning, and conducting research in the months and years to come.