Higher Education and the Revolution of 2020

By Dr. Barry Ryan,  President Emeritus of Sofia University, California and Edu Alliance, Advisory Council Member May 24, 2020. 

The Plague quote

 Neither should do so.  Of course, the precise timing of its arrival, nature of the beast, it’s spread, and duration may have been unpredictable.  To use legal language, though, we all “knew or should have known” that a pandemic was coming.  Yet the world was woefully under-prepared.

The immediacy of the threat to the health of millions upon millions around the planet was overwhelming – not just medically, but emotionally and psychologically as well.  It was followed closely by the realization that an economic disaster was unfolding concomitantly with the plague itself, escalating worldwide fear and stress like little else in history.  In a very few short months, life on earth changed.

Higher education has, obviously, not been spared.  University research resources and hospital systems have been turned to as trusted sources of scientific knowledge and hope for the development of treatments and vaccines.  But what about the non-scientific research aspects of higher education?

Simple questions have not generated simple answers.  Campuses were closed, residential housing emptied, students sent “home” (very difficult for many, particularly international students).  Faculty and staff, likewise, wondering whether their jobs would survive and, if so, in what form?  Administrators, boards, presidents felt the full burden of making decisions that, perhaps for the first time in their professional lives, had life or death consequences.

In such a crisis, the immediate impulse was to try to save the Spring academic term (and preserve some vestige of “normalcy”) by pivoting to online delivery of course content for those already underway.  Was there any other choice?

That decision, though, was fraught with challenges.  Some institutions had well-developed online programming and experienced faculty.  A few, of course, were already exclusively online in all their programs, while others had at least one entire program available in that format and approved by accreditors.

But many institutions had little or no such capacity, experience, or resources.  Online curriculum delivery was not merely a matter of hooking up a Zoom link and providing “chalk and talk” from the instructor already partway through the course.  Some, particularly smaller institutions, didn’t have the IT resources to make even that possible or to support such rapid change.

Many faculty members who were pressed into some sort of online format had no prior experience, no training, and little support.  Often, the courses themselves had never been designed for the online world.  Such curricular development takes time and expertise, neither of which was sufficiently available.

In many cases, the quality of instruction slipped, at best, and both students and faculty added confusion and frustration to their already heavy burdens of anxiety and fear.  The questions came louder and more frequently – is this what I’m paying for?  The financial concerns increased, especially given the unfolding economic disaster and job losses hitting students and their families.  Had their education, which now looked very unlike what they had expected, become an unnecessary luxury?  Did it have sufficient meaning any longer?

In-person events, including athletic, performance, and commencement ceremonies, were taken off the calendar.  Many of the summer courses are not face to face and what will campuses look like in the Fall and beyond?

The answers have been, understandably, tentative. I’ve been in touch with a dozen presidents. All are struggling with the strong desire to “re-open” their campuses as soon as possible.  However, this plague and the efficacy of efforts to diminish its effects do not operate on a timeline of our choosing.  The economic damage to colleges and universities is already enormous, and each week, only deepens the losses.  There is an almost overwhelming compulsion to return to normal.

It is clear many students (and their families) have little appetite for having to bear the costs of an education that is online only, without the “college experience” that they had expected.  Many faculty have similar concerns about that same thing. How long will they go along with an online solution?  The California State University Chancellor announced that the Fall of 2020 classes will be online (with a few small exceptions) for the nation’s largest system.  Will those students accept online, or look elsewhere, or nowhere?  Will they come back in January, if at all?

Will new students take a “gap year”?  Or shift their enrollment to community colleges, at a fraction of the cost?  Projected first-time freshmen enrollments were already a challenge for most traditional institutions, even before the plague.  Will international students even be able to attend institutions in the US, this Fall or even in 2021?  These are health care and political questions with a national election in the US in the midst of it all.

What to do now?

There will not be a “return to normal” for vast swaths of American higher education.  Ever. This pandemic has acted as an accelerant for massive changes in how colleges and universities function. It had already begun in recent years but has now become a tsunami.

The technological changes and the virtual nature of education that is being forced upon us all are irresistible and unavoidable.  Yes, preparation for high-quality online curricula and delivery modalities, with well-trained faculty and robust IT support, must happen.  But the technological aspect is only one of the catalysts for a revolution in higher education as we know it.

Another element that has been simmering, but now reaching the boiling point, is the value proposition of higher education in its traditional forms.  It is most obvious from students and their families, who anticipated a “college experience.” It is characterized by a residential campus, multiple levels of interaction with everyone in the campus community, and face to face instruction and support, are now demanding refunds and reduced tuition for what is perceived as a pale online/virtual substitute.  Cost/benefit analysis will not generate kind results for much of higher education.

Even beyond the spring 2020 context, the reality of vastly increased online aspects of higher education will accentuate the demand for new value propositions, reflecting new operating realities.  Colleges and universities need to plan now about how to meet what will be increasing demands – from students and their families, but also consumer advocates and even governments.  This change is coming, and it is unstoppable.

A hugely significant aspect that has received little attention may turn out to be the biggest game-changer of all: the role of corporations in educating their prospective employees apart from traditional higher education.  It has already begun, as large companies – tech and otherwise – have tired of asking for changes in traditional higher education, so their workforce will be better prepared.  They are already engaged in developing their own educational systems, focused very specifically on the demands of their research, development, production, and marketing.  No degree necessary.

I believe there are three enormous challenges for higher education institutions in the midst of the pandemic:

  1. Technological preparation, curricular design, and instructional excellence for online modalities
  2. Improvement of operational efficiencies and pricing to create a better and more convincing value proposition regarding the worth of a variant of traditional higher education
  3. Develop market-sensitive higher education programs that include practical “clinical” training that demonstrates higher education’s competitiveness with corporate, educational alternatives

It is foolish to attempt to predict precisely what all this will look like, and what the results will be.  But this is not just about the pandemic.  It’s about how life and higher education went through revolutionary changes that began in earnest in 2020.

Camus, again: “Once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”  Note carefully:  the plague did not end when hope stirred.  But its dominion did.  We must be prepared for the opportunities when that occurs – much better than we were for its onset.

Barry-RyanDr Barry Ryan is President Emeritus of Sofia University in California and from 2013-19 served as a Commissioner for WASC Senior College & University Commission. He has extensive background in teaching, academic administration, accreditation, and law.  As a first generation college student, he fell in love with higher education in all of its many forms.  Barry has served in large public universities, as well as in non-profit, faith-based, and for-profit institutions of all sizes, in traditional and online educational contexts.

Barry’s international experience is equally varied.  He has focused on international education and throughout his career, established programs for US universities throughout Latin America and Europe.  As part of a long history of involvement in regional accreditation, he has just completed his second term as a Commissioner with WSCUC (“WASC”).  Barry has also worked with HLC and SACS, as well as a number of programmatic accreditors, including the ABA, APA, ACPE, CACREP, ACOTE, CODA, ACBSP, CCNE, CAPTE, and ATS.

In university settings, Barry has lengthy and recognized service as a faculty member in multiple disciplines.  He has been in the roles of department chair, founder and director of a center for teaching and learning, dean, vice president, provost, and president.

Where Does Higher Education Go from Here?

University leaders in the Middle East share their perspectives on how higher education will adapt in a post-Covid-19 world.

By Dr. Senthil Nathan, Co-founder and Managing Director of Edu Alliance, UAE May 10, 2020.

Higher education leaders in the Middle East and neighboring regions are generally upbeat about the results of the experiment in online learning that the Covid-19 pandemic forced on them, but many say the experience also exposed a number of problems that need to be addressed for e-learning to be used effectively.

Those are among the findings of an informal survey I conducted over the past fortnight, asking a dozen leaders from a range of universities and colleges in the Gulf states, India and Kazakhstan for their perspectives on the future of higher education in a post-Covid-19 world. Given the wide spectrum of institutions they lead, rather than administering a typical quantitative questionnaire, I asked them open-ended questions.

Their comments delve into a number of areas of higher education uniquely affected by the widespread shutdowns imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.  These areas included e-learning, enrollment changes, jobs for new graduates, new programs and majors, international students and staff mobility. A brief summary of their perspectives follows. More details will be presented in subsequent blog posts.

COVID 19 story May 2020

1. On the effectiveness of online learning provisions during the shutdowns:

Many of the leaders surveyed shared the pleasant surprise of Prof. Khaled Assaleh, provost of Ajman University, in the United Arab Emirates, at the speed at which faculty and students embraced online learning. “It was a positive and pleasant surprise that things went better than most universities anticipated in terms of course delivery, student responsiveness, and faculty adaptation to this mode of delivery,” Assaleh said. “Even student attendance has been better than face-to-face classes.

Dr. Thomas J. Hochstettler, a commissioner of the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) of the emirates’ Ministry of Education, observed that, “first, higher education institutions, by and large, grasped immediately the challenges of converting to e-learning, mid-semester and … faculty and administrators alike threw themselves heart and soul into the herculean task. …  Second, many institutions have in the process become Learning Organizations.

About half of the respondents saw effective learning in this format.  Prof. Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University, Dubai, noted, “I think we can do a lot and effectively online, and the last four weeks demonstrated this. Both our staff and students engaged very well.

Prof. T.G. Sitharam, director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, India, projects a bright future for e-learning in his country. “India already has such a huge collection of online course modules and … can certainly take a lead in providing solutions for online teaching and learning throughout the world.

However, some key issues have also been pointed out. Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, pro chancellor of Symbiosis International University, in Pune, India, observed that faculty members had to adapt to online learning “all of a sudden. … This was more of a reactive approach and not proactive”.

Prof. Yusra Mouzughi, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, in Oman, cautioned,  “What we have seen in many cases … has not necessarily been e-learning but delivery of the same (traditional) material on a virtual platform. E-learning has a different pedagogical base.”  Universities will be best served in the coming months by keeping this warning in view, reflecting on and refining their pedagogy, delivery and assessment to be more appropriate to and effective in the e-learning mode.

The president of a smaller college in Dubai, who preferred to remain confidential, was not optimistic about the staying power of wholly online learning at his institution, “partly due to our college’s student body which is mainly non-traditional.”  However, along with many other respondents, he was optimistic about “a significant long-term change … in the level of acceptance of the regulators regarding distance learning.”  This development, if realized, will be of major consequence to the Middle East and North Africa region, where many regulators generally do not accredit fully online or distance learning programs.

Dr. Assem Al-Hajj, president of Khawarizmi International College, in Abu Dhabi, shares this hope. “Higher education Institutions will be hoping that authorities will be fast to approve this move,” he said.

In the long-term, for sustainable adoption of online learning, Internet access was identified as a constraint across all the countries that the respondents hail from.  Prof. Gilbert Linne, vice president for academic affairs at KIMEP University, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, noted that “the bandwidth that is available … has proved to be challenging as the faculty have had to adapt to asynchronous learning for those students.

Assessment of student learning was also seen by many respondents as one of the challenges to overcome.  Prof. Abdul Rahim Sabouni, president of Emirates College of Technology, in Abu Dhabi, noted that “the biggest challenge was the assessment, especially through synchronous camera proctored exams, as they are seen to be intrusive.

Some are considering conducting classical proctored assessment, either online through state-of-the art security technologies or in physical testing centers.  Prof. Ghassan Aouad, president of Applied Science University, in Bahrain, is emphatic about the viability of online examinations. It “could be more beneficial when designed properly,” he said.   “… We just need a different mind-set. … Many techniques are being developed to address the issue of authenticity through image and voice recognition.

This assessment challenge could also be seen “as an opportunity to evolve new methods for assessing student success … and to make the quantum leap from baseline e-learning platforms into smart learning outright,” said Dr. Hochstettler. “The savvy instructor is also learning to avoid having to police students and to engineer assessments in ways that focus on student creativity.

Prof. Mahender Reddy, vice chancellor of ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education, in Hyderabad, India, noted a few more advantages e-learning could offer. They include “learning from eminent persons in the field; scale advantage; and interactive learning processes.”

Almost every respondent seemed to have a strong view that e-learning is here to stay and can make a much stronger contribution to higher education in the years ahead.  Prof. Sitharam noted that more than 2,000  open online courses had been created on India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning platform. The platform, known as NPTEL, was initiated by Sitharam’s university in Guwahati and six other Indian Institutes of Technology, along with the Indian Institute of Science.  Over ten million learnersfrom around the world, including a large number of teachers, he said, have enrolled in the courses, which are available free on the Internet. He believes that many more institutions in India are embracing online learning to reach more students at a low cost.

2. Impact on student enrollment:

I asked the leaders about the potential drop in enrollment of new students and how the universities plan to deal with this impact.  Many agreed with Dr. Hochstettler’s observation, that “financial uncertainty is the biggest challenge that colleges and universities face today.”

Prof. Mousa Mohsen, president of American International College, in Kuwait, described two opposing effects on enrollment for universities in the Gulf. On the one hand, “expats in the Gulf region, laid off from their jobs, will not be able to sponsor the education of their children at local universities. On the other hand, many students who are currently studying abroad will return to their home countries to finish their degrees at local universities. For example, 35,000 Kuwaiti students who are studying abroad will return to Kuwait in the coming few weeks.

Dr. Khaled  sees a potential to increase graduate student enrollment, as “many unemployed graduates may choose to go for post-graduate studies.

Dr. Yeravdekar is confident about the situation in top Indian universities. “In India we will not see much fall in admissions as the numbers seeking admissions in good universities are very high as compared to the seats available,” she said.  In addition, thousands of Indian students who go abroad are likely to stay in the country next year.

In terms of the admissions process for new students, with some lacking standardized tests and even final grades, Prof. Khaled has been thinking of a flexible process that includes conditional admission, remedial provisions and adjustments in the fall semester. Several university leaders are considering increasing need-based tuition support.

There is consensus that international student enrollment in top destinations will be adversely impacted. Prof. Sabouni noted that these countries may lose their “charm.”  Prof. Ghassan views this as an advantage, saying it “will create opportunities for local and regional universities.

Dr. Assem concurred. “Students will stay in their own countries in the foreseeable future,” he said.

For universities that rely significantly on international students, there is a suggestion to allow foreign students to compete for financial aid on the same terms as domestic applicants.  At a time like this, said Prof. Yusra, “we may need to reconsider international partnerships and look at how we can leverage blended learning as a tool to maintain a presence in international markets.”

3. Graduate employment and new programs:

Fresh and inexperienced graduates of 2020 are certainly “confronting a truly daunting prospect,” several leaders said. From past experience of national or regional recessions, such unfortunate cohorts are likely to face continuing challenges in their careers over the next decade. Prof. Sabouni added, “The new graduates will face new challenges in finding employment, and they may try to get into graduate studies or more online training, until the businesses reopen again.

A couple of university leaders recognized the need for their institutions to make additional efforts to place their students. However, a number of them felt that these graduates may need to reflect on their skills and “begin to reimagine themselves as members of a rapidly changing labor force.

In terms of specific help that universities can offer, Prof. Ghassan suggested that universities help pursue higher degrees through increasing student aid and allowing more flexibility in the payment of tuition fees.

I also asked leaders for their views on how current and new programs would be affected by the combined impact of the global recession and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—a term policy makers use to describe how technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing are expected to radically reshape how people live and work.  Prof. Mohsen responded that “countries will directly require more graduates from health-related majors. …  Applications of AI/Robotics in health and medicine will witness more demand. In addition, there will be a demand on majors such as e-commerce, health-economics and global supply chain management.”  Prof. Assaleh added an educational technology major to the list of new programs that would be needed.

Some important take-aways:

  • E-learning has a strong future. Many lessons learned during this period of forced adoption will be put to good use by universities to enhance and expand online learning provisions.
  • Specific areas in e-learning that need attention include authentic assessment and equitable student access to the Internet.
  • Universities are acutely aware of the potential disruptions to student enrollment. Leaders in the  region seem much more optimistic about retaining enrollment levels, as compared to their counterparts at universities in the West.
  • There is a clear understanding of economic hardships faced by students, and universities in the region seem to be considering increased financial aid, scholarships and flexible payments.
  • Regional education leaders strongly believe that there will be major reductions in the number of students from the region traveling for studies to leading international destinations.
  • While most agree that a challenging period lies ahead for the graduating cohort of 2020, universities have yet to devise specific strategies to help students address these challenges.
  • There is an awareness about new program majors that would evolve from Covid-19 crisis combined with the imperatives of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
  • Universities that rely on international students may wish to consider need-based and merit-based scholarships and also blended learning in partnership with regional universities.


I would like to thank the following academic leaders for their thoughtful and extensive contributions, during a busy and challenging period in their institutions:

Prof. Abdul Rahim Sabouni, president & chief executive of Emirates College of Technology, Abu Dhabi;

Prof. Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University, Dubai;

Dr. Assem Al-Hajj, president of Khawarizmi International College, Abu Dhabi;

Prof. Ghassan Aouad, president of Applied Science University, Bahrain;

Prof. Gilbert Linne, vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer of KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan;

Prof. Khaled Assaleh, vice chancellor for academic affairs, Ajman University, Ajman;

Prof. J. Mahender Reddy, vice chancellor of the ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education, Hyderabad, India;

Prof. Mousa Mohsen, president of fAmerican International College, Kuwait;

Prof. T.G. Sitharam, director, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India;

Dr. Thomas J. Hochstettler, a commissioner of the Commission for Academic Accreditation, U.A.E. Ministry of Education;

Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, pro chancellor of Symbiosis International University, Pune, India;

Yusra Mouzughi, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, Oman; and

A president of a smaller college in Dubai who asked not to be identified.

Senthil 2 copyDr. Nathan is Co-Founder and Managing Partner for Edu Alliance UAE.  Since the founding of the company in 2014, Senthil has been involved in numerous worldwide advisory & consulting projects for higher education institutions, and investment firms. He also serves as a subject matter expert for engineering firms in the field of  campus planning. 

He joined the Higher Colleges of Technology in 1993, the largest higher education institution in the UAE with 23,000 UAE National students. He served in a variety of positions and from 2006-2103 was Deputy Vice Chancellor / Vice Provost for Planning & Administration. He has been involved in numerous advisory and consulting roles in education / training & development engagements to a multitude of clients in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, The United States, Africa, and India and speaks on the current issues of higher education in the Middle East.

Dr. Nathan in 2014 received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the National Institute of Technology in India by the former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam and he is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Livingston University in Uganda.  In addition to his Ph.D. in engineering from Rice University, Senthil has completed executive education programs from Harvard and MIT.