By Fred Kasirye & Bill Nkeeto
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Higher education is any postsecondary education form of learning that normally results into degrees, diplomas or certificates.
Higher educational institutions include not only universities and colleges but also various professional schools that provide preparation in fields as law, theology, medicine, business, music, accountancy and art.
Higher education also includes teacher-training schools, junior colleges, and institutes of technology. Normally the basic entrance requirement for most higher-educational institutions is the completion of secondary education.
Stakeholders in this sector are individuals or groups who have interest or concern for the institutions offering higher education.
These include administrators, lecturers, students, parents, families, community members, local business leaders, and elected officials such as school board members, council members while on the other side is the regulatory bodies like; NCHE, BTVET, Allied Health Council, to mention but a few.
These bodies perform their roles on behalf of the Government of Uganda, to ensure that quality education, that will eventually nurture professionals fit to take the country to the next level is delivered.
However, the circumstances under which these regulatory bodies and all other stakeholders have been operating, have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes by any standards, have come at a huge cost for all the players involved, something which requires to be discussed now, during the pandemic, than any other time; since no such an occurrence was envisaged previously to mitigate the current situation, which the entire education industry finds itself in.
Discussing the cost of higher education on stakeholder needs during Covid-19 times - specifically identifying how this is expected to affect learning Post Covid-19, has a bearing on all the above-stated stakeholders alike.
Available facts show that as of March 25th 2020, over 184 countries closed doors to schools globally. According to the African Population and Health Research Centre; 1.576 billion learners worldwide at all levels of education, could no longer access their learning institutions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of all the learners affected, 297 million were from Africa, a number so significant for any country to ignore taking any action. Until this current Covid-19 pandemic, institutions have been running structured annual academic calendars in the form of terms and semesters.
Institutions now have to cope with huge losses owing to the lockdown. At the beginning of every term/ semester institutions of higher learning normally make adequate preparations as they await the term/ semester opening. These include but are not limited to: - purchasing of supplies to go through the period, -paid or on credit, which is another discussion. Contracts for staff have already been signed off to guarantee effective teaching and learning.
Lecturers in public Institutions will most likely still be paid despite closures, implying that these expenses, for the most part, do not translate into learning or other Institution related services, however long a period the institutions may be closed.
If for instance the 2020 exam cycle cannot be completed, then the full year’s spending will be impacted yet cash flows are grossly affected. The effect on private Institutions is even more drastic since for them to stay afloat, they have to cut expenses largely baiting on essentials and none essentials. Cancelling contracts, renegotiating repayment of Institutional bank loans, laying off staff and counting losses from students who left mid-semester without completing their fees/ tuition along with the fear of semester/term overlaps becoming evident every day that passes.
For as long as the vaccine to curb the COVID-19 pandemic is not discovered, the risks related causing all forms of the losses in all sectors will keep mounting globally.
Away from disrupting the teaching and learning calendar, is the need to manage the costs of mitigating the consequences of Institutions closing. A prominent model has been the jump to distance learning alternative. The costs of which differ based on the available infrastructure.
There are enormous lessons to pick from this none the less. Just all of a sudden, the need to ensure that learning continues, has seen institutions invest in unprecedented online study options thus making many mistakes as is the case with learning on the job since at this point in time there is need to walk as well as run at the same time.
Staff are largely not well tooled with the skills to manage online studies and have to learn at the same speed or even slower than their millennial students. A glaring large oversight in 21st-century learning, when digitisation has swept through other sectors like a wildfire, education largely stayed conservative in defence of a need to maintain quality and efficiency. However, the need to address the problem beforehand, to ensure business continuity, invites additional costs that could be marginal in one end of the world and very high in another.
It is these business continuity dynamics that require to be properly assessed and analysed at country level to inform a business continuity plan if inequalities are to be avoided, but at such short notice, multiple huddles for all sector players tend to unfold with regards to accessibility, affordability and in some cases competence ability with regards to the staff expected to roll out the learning on these new platforms.
These present as short term costs, yet the long term presents more costs relating to stakeholder losses ranging from a dip in government revenues, failure of parents to pay for the immediate semesters/ terms as many have their incomes greatly dented, and even the service industry affected due to low demand given the challenged balance sheet of many of the Higher Education Institutions threatening the collapse of some, and others settling for acquisition or mergers for others.
Even with dipping revenue governments are squarely focused on containing the spread as other sectors wait, which in itself is a wise approach Health First. Economy next but surely not education for now with limited resources.
This national formula will not in any way spare the nationals/citizens who will have a trickledown effect of the severity caused by the pandemic. In homes across countries, families will bare the unfortunate pain of cancelling school for the year, to concentrate on soliciting for resources to enable them to start with the next year. The trickledown effect will without a doubt affect all stakeholders in ways rather drastic post-Covid 19. This will have a sustained effect on each of the various stakeholders. Ultimately the quality and quantity of education, especially in Low developed countries, is at a risk.
In conclusion, looking at the unforeseeable future, Institutions of higher learning have an early opportunity to find their feet towards survival and continue to serve, the already negatively affected stakeholders as a result of Covid-19.
The Covid-19 uncertainty could be the door to greater success for institutions of higher learning, if among many things; distance learning is embraced through the usage of online technology (webinars), creating parameters required for making quality module packs for learners, and mechanisms for online assessment, module packs moderated and qualified for academic delivery, facilitators empowered, and state of the art infrastructure put in place to support the new status quo.
This way the cost of education will not only become more affordable but also, institutions will have the capacity to ensure mass enrolment and make more people ready to receive it through the various Distance learning channels especially on the various online platforms.
This will also require the government and where possible the private sector to massively invest in high-speed internet and making it cheaply accessible to almost everyone in every corner of the country.
However, this decision is not limited to private Institutions, it requires the blessing of the regulators and Government by providing an enabling environment as well as guidelines to ensure there is no compromise to quality, a concern that can have far-reaching implications.
The telecoms should leverage this to build partnerships that will ensure data is available to the vulnerable and the internet can be across geographies. Countries that shall be able to take advantage of this will prepare themselves well for the future of education in the 21st century, suffer a short impact and reap a long-term reward in the provision of education services.
While a lot seems to be washed away, this is the time to redesign the model of education delivery to fit the current needs, especially those brought to light by the current global pandemic.
About the authors:
Fred Kasirye is development management specialist &Dean Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Victoria University
Bill Nkeeto is Business Management expert & Dean Faculty of Business and Management at Victoria University