EU’s Higher Education VS Covid-19: Its Terminator or its greatest Reformer?

by Stavrina Houssou, Columnist

Diogenes, the cynical Greek philosopher was not a pleasant man to be around. Living inside his barrel, he would criticize and make satyr out of everyone and everything he found hypocritical and vicious in his city-state, without an inch of sensitivity or consideration. He attacked relentlessly all kinds of norms with not a care in the world for what their upholders might have to offer, despite being “bribed” to a luscious lifestyle numerous times; either by admiration or desire to silence his hyper-franc ceaseless critique. 

This rascal of a philosopher, despite not being a man to respect rules and institutions, had the utmost respect for the highest -in the writer’s and Diogenes’ opinion- of institutions, as it is showcased by one of his most famous quotes: “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”. Judging by the state of the world -whether one is more on the half-full or half-empty side of the glass debate- it can be safely assumed that there are plenty to be fixed in Education. 

The pandemic, despite causing major problems to all educational levels, has one particularly complex and hard to define relationship with Higher Education. Although universities have been severely challenged, COVID-19 also pushed forward and addressed inadequacies and problematic practices that had set higher learning institutions into a downward spiral for at least the last decade. 

In the EU, reforms in this domain are hard to implement. That is because Education is still a matter of national policy. But there are numerous European Organisations and Institutions which contribute considerably to the quality of educational process in Higher Learning Institutions. Moreover, during the pandemic, the European Commission and the Council of the EU facilitated regular exchanges between Ministries and also major European Educational networks and associations. On the other hand, Research -forever interdependent with Universities- is under the  EU’s jurisdiction. The current Commission holds research in great esteem considering it a crucial tool to the EU’s future. The Commission’s policy brief entitled “The role of research and innovation in support of Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis” underlines the essential role of R&I funding as one of the most impactful tools at EU level to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the crucial role of R&I in coordinating the EU solid response to the pandemic. During dialogues of the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG), a Declaration was produced, which analyzed how an inclusive education should be maintained in times of crisis, and the importance of education, including higher education, remaining as a public responsibility. Furthermore, Europe’s function in educational affairs is evident by European nongovernmental organisations: the European Students’ Union, ETUCE representing staff unions, EUA for Universities, EURASHE for non-universities and ENQA for quality assurance agencies. All the aforementioned made the impact of the sudden disruptions that border closures caused very evident.

To begin with, we must address the elephant in the room: distance learning and the adaptation of virtual and new technologies to learning procedures. Although many -students and professors alike- questioned its validity as a learning method, online classes became the new norm. It is indicative that Universities had the least bad experiences with learning conditions during the pandemic, despite the fact that 80% of the academic stuff had never taught online before. While lacking the full spectrum of benefits in person learning offers, remote learning has proven its validity as most students’ associations confirm that the majority of students declare they are reasonably satisfied with their experiences. Although the social aspect of the Universities, as well as the University as a physical place, is surely missing, distance learning proved to be quite effective. Digital dependency highlighted for sure the digital gap between students of various backgrounds, as well as gaps regarding their academic performance -autonomous learners handled this type of learning relatively well, while students who were struggling appear to be falling behind. Nevertheless, due to the flexibility it provides and its new found respect, it is more likely that blended learning will be promoted.

Secondly, we could state as a fact that the first and foremost victims of the COVID-19 crisis are no other than mobilization and internationalization, in terms of Universities’ well-established practices. Sadly, many exchange programs were put on hold or were carried out with record low numbers. But officials look willing to re-open borders and re-install internationalization programs as soon as the circumstances permit. Furthermore, the pandemic highlighted both the importance of an international approach to learning, as well as the value of free travelling and socialization. And it could be no other way. Such practices, as the full spectrum of the Erasmus program, define the European Educational Identity as one of its few common combining characteristics.

It cannot be more evident that research is a key aspect in the European Commission’s strategy for the future of the EU. The impact of the pandemic on this particular field cannot be understated. Funding is more likely to drop for research purposes, except perhaps for research focused on areas of relevance to COVID-19. The vast majority of young doctoral candidates for example say that they feel their future prospects are in danger and that they fear or already suffer economic difficulties. Albeit that harsh reality, online working has greatly benefited researchers, especially young ones, since interdisciplinary cooperation and international exchange of data and opinion among universities has been central during the pandemic. The EU having research and innovation at the centre of its policy building for EU2030 should take the hint and invest in that advantageous field. After all, it is very likely that out of any crisis that might arise, researchers and innovators are the one who will find the creative solution out of it.

It is crucial to re-think standard practices of the past, moving on to the much discussed “New Normal”. Without a doubt, the economic and budgetary implications for higher education will be a challenging matter. This of course can and should be combated. There is a first-class opportunity to utilize and perfect the tools the pandemic introduced and de-demonetized as standard educational processes. Austerity measures from individual Governments could play an important role of course, but we might see an increased movement from Institutions which have been thinking ahead, in the fields of blended learning and flexibility enhancing curriculum, as well as strategies to promote open access in an inclusive manner. Surely, as the economy of the European Union is shrinking by more than 7%, it is highly likely to impact, both public and private funding for higher education. It can’t be accurately predicted if there will be a loss of student tuition fees or greater demand for higher learning in the face of a changed labour market; different systems might face different situations. What is extremely optimistic is the enthusiasm that the overwhelming percentage (70-80%) of Universities showed for establishing more creative, imaginative and practical curriculums that would truly equip students with the highest possible adaptation capacity in times of normality-disruption. 

Officials and policy makers in the educational and Universities’ administrative fields should take into account the experience of the last months, the chances it presented, the anomalies it highlighted and the educational needs and aspirations of the youth that the pandemic made evident that must be acquired. We either proceed blindly and costly into our educational journey, or we start strategizing, seeking for innovation and healthy basis to gather skills and knowledge, in Institutions which are willing to embody the very essence of education: preserve what is useful of the past, adapt and change in order to actively contribute in a deserving future. In the darkest of its days, one thing can be certain for the EU: this is the kind of concept, it can and it is imperative to lead the way into, in the post-COVID era.


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