From education to employment

Post-Pandemic Learning: A Chance to Re-evaluate what Higher-Education Means

Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and Victoria Basma, Policy Development Officer at WISE

There has been a great deal of apprehension around the recent changes made in education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this next era of education could be an incredibly exciting one as it will require us to go beyond our ideas of resilience, and instead begin to lay the groundwork for the types of change that have long needed to occur.

Most importantly perhaps, the idea of ownership within education has finally begun to be redefined, particularly within higher education. Post-pandemic learning places personalisation and access squarely at the centre of its architecture and for universities that have long relied on models of exclusivity, these new paradigms signal a difficult transformation ahead.

That is not to say that universities don’t recognise the need for change; there is an increasing urgency to meet the evolving needs of students, and universities will need to face those calls to action before it’s too late.

So, how do universities begin to become more agile, adaptive institutions capable of delivering more personalised pathways to learning, whilst also leveraging the online space to reimagine access en mass?  

Redefining 21st Century Learning

Throughout the pandemic, we asked ourselves what it meant to ‘reimagine’ education for a post-pandemic era and whilst these conversations were worthwhile, for the most part they overlooked the critical pain points that many institutions were already suffering from. Frankly, even before the pandemic, the education sector was not working for the majority of the world’s population. Whilst the onset of COVID-19 has forced many stakeholders to re-examine the purpose of education, especially at the level of K-12, redefining 21st century learning has been a more difficult task for universities to undertake, in some cases resulting in somewhat of an existential crisis.

To play devil’s advocate here, many universities are likely struggling to take those first steps towards transformation because for so long they simply haven’t had to. Whilst primary and secondary level schools have had to adapt in the face of ongoing disruption, including a lack of resources and staff shortages, universities have benefitted from an often exorbitant fee-paying system to shield them from these types of challenges; necessity may have been the mother of invention for some, but here unyielding stasis has resulted in dangerous complacency.

Historically, some universities have relied on the reputation of their ‘brand’ to increase prospective student interest, which is especially true for those competing for students from abroad. However, since the onset of COVID-19, universities have had increasing difficulty justifying their mammoth fees through the exclusivity of their institutions; no matter how hallowed the halls of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton may be, the truth is that once you distill those learning experiences online, the veneer of these institutions soon wears off and students, like any other modern consumer, will begin to look towards more cost-effective means of realising their goals.

The Changing Landscape of Higher-Education

Last year, UNESCO projected universities worldwide would see a 3.5 percent decrease in enrolments, resulting in a total of 7.9 million fewer fee-paying students. For universities that rely heavily on an international student body, these statistics could prove disastrous; universities in Australia for example are expecting a $16bn loss by the end of 2023. Even for the institutions that have managed to largely maintain their enrolment numbers by offering courses online, there is increasing push-back from students against paying full tuition fees. Harvard University is already predicting a $750 million revenue shortfall this year in light of these challenges.

Statistics like these paint a rather bleak picture for higher education. Indeed, the reality is that many students are increasingly selecting universities based on their return on investment, and since we live in an era defined by the democratisation of information, universities can no longer rely on reputation alone, they will need to think of better ways of adapting to the larger ecosystem if they are to survive.

In the immediacy of the pandemic, many universities made a concerted effort to expand the experience of ‘classroom’ learning into more student-focused engagement, and whilst the results of this were largely hit-and-miss, expectations around what the classroom experience could deliver became indelibly altered. As we move into 2021, universities will not only be expected to realise more blended and personalised forms of learning, they will also be faced with a new challenge of competing against alternative players who are increasingly vying for space within the same target market.

The pandemic has created a climate of uncertainty that has affected every sector and as a result, this generation of students now face the worst global recession since World War II, with The World Bank expecting per capita incomes to shrink by 3.6 per cent and youth unemployment in some places now reaching upwards of 25 percent in adults below the age of 25. As such, what is required now is a more exact pipeline between universities and major industry leaders, one that is capable of both preparing students for initial entry into a digital economy, and providing continued retraining / upskilling later on.

With this in mind, institutions should not be afraid of extending their pathways to learning beyond the traditional classroom. One way to do this is by reimagining the GI bill. For students whose regular classroom attendance is made almost impossible, participation in robust remedial programmes could allow them to hone key skills and competencies without taking too much time away from their day-to-day lives. By offering either intensive short-course programmes focused on vocational or professional training, ongoing professional apprenticeships, summer programmes or accredited independent study, universities become more appealing to both new cohorts and alumni, diversifying their target market.

Prospective students, graduates, even professionals, would likely be more inclined to invest in higher education if universities were better able to meet students’ needs in the way that their private sector counterparts already do.

Whilst urgent calls for higher education to adapt have long gone unheeded, the private sector has been quick to pick up the gauntlet and run with it. In the first six months of 2020 alone, $4.5B of Venture Capital was invested in edtech and this level of investment is only set to accelerate over the next decade.

Agility within the private sector is of course to be expected, these stakeholders are not constrained by the same parameters as public institutions and a free market demands constant innovation and adaptation. However, in this renewed rush to further digitise modern universities, there is a danger of losing sight of what education is actually meant to do.

In a New York Magazine article last year, Scott Galloway predicted that the future of tertiary education would largely rely on partnerships with ‘Big Tech’, determining that “universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand…partnerships will look something like MIT and Google partnering. Microsoft and Berkeley”. Rather than democratising pathways to higher education, Galloway goes on to suggest that technology will help university brands, and the credentials they provide, become further commodified as luxury goods with gross margins surpassing that of Ferrari or Hérmes.

The university paywall to middle class incomes is already considerable for those most in need of social mobility, therefore it would be easy to agree with Galloway’s conclusions here. However, his argument does not account for how significantly the last year has altered our ideas of what access, learning and quality content should look like.

Finding Opportunity in Crisis

While Galloway’s dismal vision of the future of learning may ring true for some, we wholeheartedly believe that the experience of this pandemic will drive us toward a new phase of higher education where system level change will be made from the bottom up and the priority will not be that of the institution, but rather the learners themselves.

A clear example of this is the shift we’re beginning to see toward subscription based modules so that students can pursue a degree without the type of financial strain they experience today. These subscription models would also allow for students to be matched with course modules based on their reported interests, skills and competencies, and in turn allow them to selectively invest in higher education credentials based on their value within a modern labour market.

Another example of this emphasis on authentic learning experiences is the increasing investment in micro-credentialism. By reconsidering the way they choose to evaluate and assess student learning, universities will no longer need to rely on end of module assessments that, more often than not, tend to test memory rather than deep understanding. Instead, they could offer more holistic points of formative assessment that can build a more composite picture of student engagement with course content. In turn, teachers are provided with a way of supporting personalised and adaptive pathways to learning, each driven by deep data analytics.

Indeed, AI and data will likely become the most prevalent layer of our higher education experiences as we begin to move further into the 21st century. Arizona State University (ASU) was an early adopter of this type of technology and it has helped academic advisors at ASU identify points where students require increased levels of support, increasing the likelihood of their academic success.This holistic reconfiguration of learning and assessment can create a wealth of opportunities for the higher education space, even beyond the paradigms of technology.

The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) is another example of a university experimenting with new models of learning design. Launching this year, LIS plans to move away from traditional forms of linear, module based study and assessments, and instead aims to employ lateral interdisciplinary learning co-created with industry partners. Alongside more formal learning, students are expected to take on work placements, with the aim of promoting the application and mastery of skills. Therefore, by the time students graduate, their success will not be measured against arbitrary academic milestones, but rather how far they were able to become creative, agile thinkers capable of solving real-world problems.

There is a great deal of risk associated with change and the temptation to recede into a risk-averse status quo is understandable, especially given the disruption of the last year. However, opportunity can always be found amidst chaos and, for higher education, the potential for radical innovation in teaching and learning must outweigh the fear of potential pitfalls. If universities can finally begin to leverage the technology and resources of their larger ecosystem partners, they could not only ease the financial strain placed on individual learners, but also create a continual cycle of collaborative, knowledge-sharing partnerships that ensure a constant evolution of course content and research that is aligned with the needs of stakeholders at every level.

By Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and Victoria Basma, Policy Development Officer at WISE

Stavros Yiannouka 100x100Stavros N. Yiannouka is the CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a global think tank of the Qatar Foundation. WISE is dedicated to enabling the future of education through innovation. Its activities encompass research, capacity-building programs, and advocacy. WISE flagship initiatives include an annual series of research publications, a biennial global summit dubbed the ‘Davos of education’, the WISE Edtech Acceleratorthe WISE Innovation Awards, and the WISE Words podcast.

Prior to joining WISE in August 2012, Stavros was the Executive Vice-Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) at the National University of Singapore. He joined the LKY School in June 2005 to spearhead the implementation of an ambitious growth strategy, which he had helped develop as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. Today, the LKY School is widely recognized as the leading global policy school in Asia. Together with Kishore Mahbubani et al. Stavros is the co-author of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: Building a Global Policy School in Asia, World Scientific (2012). For more visit

Before joining the LKY School, Stavros spent five years with McKinsey & Company from 2000-2005 serving private and public sector clients in Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Canada, predominantly in finance, healthcare and education. Prior to joining McKinsey, Stavros practiced corporate law in the City of London from 1995-1998 with the firms Gouldens and Mayer, Brown & Platt. Stavros holds an MBA (with Distinction) from the London Business School and an LLB (with Honours) from the University of Bristol. He is a member of the Law Society of England and Wales, a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA); a Member of the Board of Trustees of Nazarbayev University in Astana Kazakhstan; and a non-executive Director of Blue Diagonal Capital Limited.

Victoria Basma 100x100Victoria Basma is Policy Officer for WISE, she has over 6 years of experience working in education, including time spent as a classroom teacher and education consultant.

She currently serves as WISE’s Policy Development Officer within the edtech track, working with key edtech investors and entrepreneurs on projects that aim to create a positive impact within education.

Victoria holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), specializing in development in education and social policy reform. 

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