Tertiary education and the present challenges

The University of Guyana is currently engaged in a search for a new Vice Chancellor, and from all indications, this process is expected to conclude in a matter of weeks. The institution has been without a VC for almost a year, following the departure of US-based Guyanese Professor Ivelaw Griffith.
Once he/she is selected, the new Vice Chancellor will join the university at a very critical time, and is expected to bring to the table a high level of creative thinking and innovative skills, to ensure the university adapts to the changing times.
As is well known, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected every aspect of national life: business, tourism, travel, sports, and certainly education. In addition to severely affecting schools across the country, the virus has had a massive impact on tertiary learning institutions; more particularly the University of Guyana, which churns out hundreds of graduates every year. Classes were disrupted; students’ assessments/exams were postponed or cancelled altogether; and it is still not clear how the university would move forward in terms of ‘catching up’ with more than two months of academic work that was missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Guyana is not alone in this regard. All over the world, tertiary institutions are grappling with similar challenges due to the impact of the pandemic. From the time the virus began to spread globally, universities, colleges, technical schools et al were forced to respond in a matter of days. The majority of them lacked the necessary financial and technical resources to engage their students via distance learning; hence teaching, for the most part, had ground to a halt.
Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic will see lasting changes to our everyday lives, with education delivery and learning being no exception. Governments and development partners must act quickly; they must provide the necessary policy guidance and resources needed to support academic learning in a post COVID-19 world which, no doubt, would see a huge chunk of learning being taken to online platforms.
In an article: “COVID-19’s immense impact on equity in tertiary education”, which appeared recently in the World Bank Blogs, writers Roberta Malee Bassett and Nina Arnhold pointed to the huge challenges which countries find themselves in at present relative to providing tertiary education post COVID-19.
Bassett and Arnhold referred to “three main equity implications which are emerging in this first flush of change” brought about by the pandemic. These are: lives have been uprooted and left unmoored; the digital divide exposes the socioeconomic inequity of distance learning; and there is a disproportionate likelihood that underserved and at-risk students will not return when campuses reopen.
According to the authors, recognising these equity challenges as early as possible should allow institutions and governments to fashion interventions that mitigate the impacts and environmental barriers to students’ returning to their studies.
They underscored the point that, for many countries, there is insufficient infrastructure, and homes lack the hardware and connectivity for distance learning.
Globally, there is a massive regional variation in internet penetration, with Africa having the lowest, at 39.3%, and North America the highest, at 94.6%. Even across fragile and low-income countries, there is massive disparity.
The authors suggested that stakeholders who are in a position to prepare for the equity implications should begin now, identifying at-risk students and communities and engaging with them to understand and respond with support that can help them continue their studies.
In Guyana’s case, the new Government would need to rethink its approach to tertiary education. It would have to ensure that UG especially is provided with the necessary resources to cope in a post COVID-19 environment. The demands of the university are great, and are ever-changing; and to continuously meet them, there must be a sustainable source of financing – and this goes beyond the annual subvention it receives from Government.
We have always insisted that, because the private sector benefits tremendously from the skills of the hundreds of graduates churned out annually, it is expected that, in return, it should invest in the continued development and expansion of that institution.
As stated by Bassett and Arnhold, the crisis triggered by COVID-19, and likely exacerbated by a recession, will undoubtedly stress the most vulnerable even more. This is a good time for the private sector and other development stakeholders to partner with the Government and lend critical support to the University of Guyana.

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