by Hamish Coates, Xie Zheping and Xi Hong
This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.
In July 2020, my nine-year-old daughter picked my 1968 edition of Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles from the shelf and asked me: “Why did the girl catch a plane to school?”. I paused, wondering if this was fantasy, folly, fantastic, foresight, fortune, futuristic or just funny. “So she could get a higher education”, my daughter answered, signalling how comfortable today’s children of faculty have grown up feeling about international university study.
In 1968, the idea that millions of young middle-income people mainly from Asia would swirl around the globe for undergraduate study, financially turbocharging research at major universities, was fanciful. A one-hour trunk call might cost more than a 2019 trans-Pacific plane ticket; the 747, the monumental whale which lifted globalisation, was fresh from the hangar; only very high elites in largely developing Asian economies were thinking about university, and such study was barely a prerequisite for a fantastic and fulsome or even a professional life.
My ideas wandered before my daughter pitched the punchline, but one gnawing anxiety pulsed stubbornly in my imagination. In this year of pandemic-induced accelerated global transformation, with 747s scuttled, billions carved from university budgets, and 14-day hotel quarantine dwarfing the pain of even 14-hour flights, what, I thought, would higher education be like in 2030 for my daughter’s generation? The nomenclature of qualifications and credentials proliferates but scares about ‘over-education’ and diminishing returns from degrees have, paradoxically, led to more people spending more time in more study. Promulgating the promise of technology has seen the campus flourish into sacred learning places. Higher education will continue to grow in value. I have learned that forecasting the future is fraught with failure, but also that failing to plan means planning to fail.
Such observation helped to frame analysis of how engaging with transformed fundamentals is necessary to design global hybrid higher education. The point of our recent Studies in Higher Education paper, and my broader book on Higher Education Design, was not to dramatize contentious political contingencies, polish pedagogical pedantries, earmark technological solutions, or cast policy prescriptions. The point, rather, has been to clarify multidimensional tectonic rumbles, make clear often hidden but non-ignorable innovation underway, and frame constructive narratives and perspectives for considering the shape of things to come. Given that higher education does change, slowly, then suddenly, let’s get ready and be prepared.
Our Studies in Higher Education essay starts by charting recent experiences of me and co-authors. Like many in higher education, our lives have been filled with what felt like ‘free flowing globalism’, with myriad experiences pounding rhythms of seemingly unstoppable growth. Then, swiftly, in January 2020, the world got acutely personal and unusual.
This gave time and remit to question what shocks or changes have been evident, how have these registered, and what implications they carry. Our analysis is framed in terms of system-level shifts, education reconfigurations, research developments, and the movement of people.
Notable system shifts included the re-assertion of government power, notable in terms of border closures, health priorities, and emboldened regulatory structures. Myriad shock vectors arising from the pandemic also appear to have grounded the ‘isomorphic ivy striving’ fixations of plushily renumerated executives, directing their attention to more local communities and concerns. “Teach local students like your job depends on it”, one top-university president told his professors, sharply diverting from the entrenched ‘world-class university’ rhetoric of publishing and patenting to pump up the rankings. Such fundamental re-orientation around local communities generates novel futures for education and engagement, and carries broader implications for sectoral and institutional structure. At the other end of the geographic spectrum, the pandemic shock spurred reconfiguration of important cross-border engagements. Such reconfiguration of cross-border education, student mobility, faculty work, and research fundamentals will leave a lasting impact on higher education. For instance, there will be greater need for global coordination around education regulation and quality assurance, particularly education which is broadcast online.
The global shift to ‘emergency online learning’ caused by the shuttering of campuses is likely to be one of the biggest ever changes to education. In 2020 there were estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s learners, more than 1.5 billion people, were confined to their homes. As I articulate in Higher Education Design, online learning emerged from these emergency conditions as a plinth undergirding future higher education. Tellingly, however, online learning was relegated as a servant of in-person provision, not as the triumphant master, as long expounded by techno-zealots. The maturation of hybrid forms of education was made possible by the consolidation of very sophisticated education service firms. Such partnerships carry step-change implications for future higher education. Clearly, these education-related changes and reconfigurations merely scratch the surface. While ‘change rhetoric’ runs rampant in higher education commentary and scholarship, realistically education plays out across decades through large systems with long pipelines. It is too soon to calculate the effects of contemporary disruptions on students who have been preparing their whole lives for dreamlike university futures. While the shape of the post-pandemic recovery remains ‘a question mark’, the magnitude of disruption has already reconfigured education in ways which will ricochet for years to come.
Personal experiences, media stories and discussions with colleagues all conveyed major shifts in academic research. Trapped at home, all academics and consultants found more time to write, surely ensuring that, through essays like ours, 2020 will be one of the most highly documented yet. Such inquiry has raised fresh questions about the overall direction of our field. The year 2020 has required higher education research to deliver in robust and relevant ways. We became convinced, as outlined below, of the need for the field to engage with fundamental forms of higher education design. Beyond higher education studies, it was hard not to project that abrupt changes to academic research will reap enduring consequences. Governments stepped in to subsidise fields not independently viable. Through writing, investigative and editorial work we noted swift changes with publishing. Fuelled by the vaccine quest, medical researchers cemented decades of debate into collaborative ways for expediting and strengthening peer review, which will carry universal implications. The swing towards open-access publications was accentuated, potentially to help faculty working from home, certainly affirming growing interest in open science and, related to this, establishing momentum towards citations and other impact-related metrics. New global realisation emerged of the role of research in Asia, not just in supporting more established systems, but in pioneering frontiers and innovations.
Higher education is about people, and changes regarding people have already had the most profound impact and implications. Across Asia, travel which used to take six hours and six hundred dollars, in 2020 took six weeks and six thousand dollars, considering costs for visas, health certificates, flights and quarantine. It has been impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students, on faculty, and on broader global flows. It does not take too much acumen or courage to foresee that transnational education will look very different over the next 25 years. The pandemic has flattened ‘international education’ and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. As our essay conveys, the conditions and arrangements built up since the mid-1990s to sustain ‘international higher education’ have cracked, sometimes in irreparable ways. The ‘emergency’ arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important ratchets which will prove hard or unpleasant to reverse. Emergent changes reveal the need for new transnational perspectives, partnerships, practices.
As our essay articulates, we started 2020 researching global higher education futures, sustained academics through pandemic-induced turbulence, then realised that contemporary changes had reconfigured fundamentals. A volatile, exciting and thought-provoking time. Far from muting or stalling the initial research, we realised that our experiences in 2020 has presaged the shape of things to come. A constructive way to engage, we conclude, is to engage in fresh forms of higher education design. Higher education has never been more important.
Hamish COATES, XIE Zheping and XI Hong are at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.
Hamish COATES is a Tenured Professor, Director of the Higher Education Research Division, and Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development. He was Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Founding Director of Higher Education Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Leadership and Management. He concentrates on improving the quality and productivity of higher education. firstname.lastname@example.org
With a PhD in political science, Dr XIE Zheping is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, as well as the Deputy Director of Policy Research Office at Tsinghua University. She also serves as an academic board member of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO. Before joining Tsinghua she worked at Renmin University of China, and was a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published several papers and books on education and international cooperation. Her current research focuses on higher education and global governance.
Xi HONG is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. Xi is the recipient of the ‘Future Scholar Scholarship of Tsinghua University’. She specialises in the field of higher education, focusing in particular on student development, higher education policy, higher education assessment, and minorities.