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The lessons and implications of pandemics

UWI students attend a function on campus

In its comprehensive report on the functioning of the University of the West Indies (UWI), the Sir Dennis Byron commission has looked at the impact that Covid-19 has had on the institution.

The commission touched on the fact that UWI had to turn to the use of technology to keep classes and for students to be able to do their work.

The following was highlighted in the report:-

Challenges posed by the situation

The main challenges posed by the pandemic in university communities have included:

(a) Physical closure of face-to-face-classes – within less than a month of the pandemic’s spread to Latin America and the Caribbean, 98% of the higher education students and teachers (23.4 million students and 1.4 million teachers) were affected by these closures.

(b) Closure of physical library facilities – affecting the ability of faculty and students to conduct research. It must, however, be noted that all of The UWI libraries have continued to provide to students and staff virtual service across almost all areas.

There has been increased utilisation of this virtual access. The challenge with the physical closure has largely been experienced by those with no access to the internet; and those wishing to access the West Indiana collections (most of which are not digitised because of copyright and intellectual property issues).

The paucity of indigenous digital learning objects specifically tailored to courses taught by The UWI also posed challenges for the continuity of learning in the pandemic.

(c) Challenges of transposing Face-to-Face (F2F) courses to online instruction

(d) Capacity of faculty to shift to distance learning instruction

(e) Absence of a robust, unified and integrated institutional platform that enables online administration of student and faculty, online teaching, learning, testing and research – it is not simply about the adoption of single stand-alone technologies but the convergence of technology for the seamless operation of the organisation.

(f) Access to internet/ICT devices and affordable/appropriate broadband levels.

There is need to rethink the “bricks and mortar” approach to expansion of university opportunity and its high capital investment costs. If COVID persists or if the future will involve recurring pandemics, the university of the future will require a strong virtual construct in a blended modality of delivery of higher education throughout the university system.

Of equal concern is the profound economic impact of the pandemic on the Caribbean. A leading Caribbean economist predicted that a legacy of this pandemic, if its economic decline is to continue along its current trajectory, could be that the Caribbean can become by 2050, one of the poorest regions of the world.

The UWI reality
The impact of the pandemic on The University of the West Indies highlights the imperative of the digital transformation of The UWI’s entire infrastructure – fore-shadowed in the ATTAIN and PROCARE Reports.

The increasing possibility of the world having to adjust to a “living with COVID” mode and the uncertainty as to how long this might be, requires that The UWI undertake an integrated ICT and digital transformation with accelerated urgency.

The University’s position as the premier institution of higher education necessarily calls for it to have a solid and integrated ICT and digital infrastructure that eliminates duplication and overlap of systems and processes.

This would enable greater federated collaboration of academic and administrative staff and students, and provide instruction seamlessly across its regional footprint, while enhancing the ability of the University to project itself internationally, and to manage better the governance-related costs associated with persons having to meet across the island chain.

It should be emphasised that the digital transformation of The University of the West Indies is not about a uni-dimensional change from a predominantly face-to-face instructional construct to an online and virtual institution.

The imperative is that The UWI establish the digital infrastructure that will enable it to achieve the things that we described through use of real time, strategically determined data, with the ultimate aim of becoming a blended learning institution.

Alongside the acceleration of its digital transformation, The UWI should also focus on the redesign of its physical spaces to take into account the new protocols of physical distancing that may persist for an indefinite period.

This will require fundamental changes to class size, and workload will be impacted in this process, as there will be need for repetition of classes, or for a combination of face-to-face and simultaneous streaming. Therefore, there is need to expedite the digitisation of courses to reduce the pressure on physical classrooms.

The online policy for teaching will need to be revisited to treat with scheduling as well. Such a redesign should also be guided by the importance of preserving the community and socialising function of a regional university that promotes people-to-people relationships in a diversified academic demographic.

The campuses of The UWI have generally taken their cue from the national governments of the countries in which they are located. Notwithstanding this, from information received by the Commission, the decisiveness of the shutdown was so immediate that it elicited a differentiated impact among the campuses.

From a student services perspective it appeared that UWI Cave Hill campus was the one with the best focus on student welfare, wellbeing and ease of mind, particularly with respect to non-national students.

Cave Hill Campus’ communication with students, its expressions of support and its dialogue with the OECS in response to queries of Member States Ministries of Education and parents were said to be exemplary.

However, the Commission learned that the contradictory information received from other locations caused unnecessary anxieties to students and highlighted:-

(i) an absence of University-wide strategy and understanding for an emergency and disaster response within a crisis, but importantly

(ii) differences in priority ordering across the University, and (iii) a lack of balancing UWI-wide priorities against campus localised priorities.

There needs to be a mechanism to ensure that, in addressing any mission critical matter, there is a balanced response that takes into account both the University-wide perspective as well as the campus agenda, an issue highlighted in the ProCare Report (2018).

The Commission has been made aware that many gaps and inequities in the system have been brought to the fore by COVID-19, and with the hurried shift to online learning, access issues were foremost.

All education systems in the Caribbean were forced to respond hurriedly to assure continuity of learning with the closure of schools. Equity issues were brought into sharp focus (such as access to internet and required devices; student nutrition provision). It was always assumed that at the higher education level most students would have access to computers and internet at home.

However, the University reported that – as a consequence of COVID-19 – it discovered that 20% of the student population does not have access to computer devices and, consequently, efforts are underway to address this disadvantage. At the regional level, there is now an acute sense of urgency on the need to ramp up broadband access and ensure that it is made more affordable.

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The importance of online learning is now irrevocably on the agenda of education policy makers and it is the right moment for the UWI Open Campus – as the only campus of The UWI with the full capability for online delivery of programmes – to take a lead role.

The challenge is that the rest of the University was not tooled to do this and consequently, the University has had to move quickly to upskill lecturers and re-configure its courses for online delivery.

The Times Higher Education has concluded that “the most effective tool in keeping student retention and maintaining access to learning has been online courses.”

In the short-term, there may well be an enrolment crunch coming for universities that have not been able to make that transition with sufficient speed. For The UWI, enrolment for the new academic year will be unpredictable, except for those programmes that can be made or are already available online.

In the Commission’s view, the enrolment crunch can be beneficial to The UWI as many Caribbean students who may have contemplated studying in the US, Canada or the UK may now be reluctant to do so given the prevalence of the pandemic in these geographies – diminution of Caribbean student enrolment in foreign universities can be turned to advantage by The UWI if it is able to provide programmes of equal or better quality.

Relatedly, though, if the programmes that they desire are available online with renowned institutions, these students may opt to remain at home and pursue those options (which challenges the Open Campus to offer quality alternatives or establish strategic partnerships with these external providers).

The ILO estimated that “9.9 percent of working hours in the Caribbean are expected to be lost during the second quarter [of 2020] due to the impact of COVID-19 – a magnitude equivalent to a loss of 1.5 million full- time jobs”.

The economic impact of the pandemic on family income and resources therefore may well lead to the postponement of plans for university and in such cases, a viable option for such persons might be microcredentialing upskilling themselves to provide more economic mobility or entrepreneurial lift in the medium-term.

This will require a carefully calibrated and integrated approach involving re-conceptualisation of the traditional degree offering, aligned to quality assured policies and procedures for online assessment/examinations and their proctoring and acceptance of these programmes by accreditation agencies.

The record of the Open Campus suggests that there is a potentially big market for professional upgrading among working people and with the uncertainties of the employment landscape, The UWI can undertake a careful study of the upskilling of those still engaged in economic activity and for re-skilling of persons made redundant who are seeking to re-engage.

Another consequence of a possible enrolment crunch to The UWI is a severe contraction or contradiction of campus fees – whether paid by Governments or by students. This reinforces a principal preoccupation of the Commission with the overdue urgency of simplifying and reforming the financial model of UWI with transparent disambiguation of economic cost of a programme or course.

Further, this financial remodelling might be more effective if it offers a variety of payment options and variable fees related to the modality of instruction and the modularisation of degrees (e.g. online courses being cheaper than face-to-face course options).

The UWI will need to meticulously define the protocols for health and safety that it will put in place for the restoration of face-to-face classes on all campuses.

In light of its precarious fiscal position (likely to be exacerbated by the inability of Governments to pay) attention will have to be paid to how these protocols will impact the recurrent costs of the University and how The University will sustain its daily physical operations under these protocols.

A 2020 study done by Deloitte on Higher Education in a Post COVID-19 World69, which the Commission commends to the attention of The UWI Executive Management, identified seven immediate, short-term and long-term challenges facing higher education institutions.

Things that need to be rethought as a consequence of the pandemic

In the Commission’s view, there are four “big picture” things that will need to be reimagined by the University as a consequence of the pandemic in the Caribbean:

  1. The rationale for any future investment in bricks and mortar – taking into consideration that whether in a “post-COVID” or a “Living with COVID” future, public spaces such as educational spaces will need to be reconceptualised around health safety protocols. Bricks and mortar will be reduced but not go away, so that any investment should ensure that buildings are multipurpose, and intelligently and digitally enabled. Essentially, these new facilities should be available for lectures, streaming and recording of lectures, and potentially with all necessary protocols in place they could be used as examination sites as well.

(b) The globalisation agenda of The UWI needs to be revisited (in light of the serious financial situation facing the University) with careful attention to the costs of establishing and maintaining “offshore alliances” in several parts of the world.

Consideration needs to be given to a reverse scenario in which The University invites strategic partners to co-locate in the Caribbean on its campuses. This would open possibilities for space rentals to world class universities offering partner programmes with UWI. The famed touristic appeal of the region as well as our comparatively superior handling of the pandemic can be leveraged to attract a significantly larger demographic of foreign students to The UWI.

(c) The financing of the University with specific attention to the “fee factor” – requiring a revisiting of the economic cost model and a more transparent differential pricing formula for online and face- to- face programmes.

(d) The digital transformation of the University: As the Commission has observed and reported, The UWI has reports which have mapped comprehensive approaches to the digital transformation of the University, such as the ProCare (2010 and 2018) reports. Their far-reaching recommendations not only addressed the technological efficiencies to be realised but, importantly, outlined the organisational efficiencies, the cost savings and the student-centeredness that could be achieved through a systematic transformation process.

No-one could have foreseen the catastrophic impact of the pandemic that descended in 2020 but had the pathways meticulously mapped in these reports been followed,

The UWI would have been far more prepared and able to guarantee continuity of learning in higher education in the Caribbean. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has incentivised and engendered a demonstration of the possibilities moving forward. The Commission hopes that The UWI will optimise the potential opportunities.

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