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.

Small rural Colleges and Universities are they viable?

Allen MeadorsBy Allen C. Meadors, Chancellor and Professor Emeritus The University of North Carolina-Pembroke May 4, 2020. The United States has over 5,000 Colleges and Universities ranging from less than a hundred students to over 50,000 students. All institutions of higher education have been re-evaluating their mission and viability, but none more than the 500 or so smaller institutions spread throughout rural America. These institutions are often the lifeblood of their community (and often their region). They often represent one of the most substantial ties to the community/region’s history and culture. They are often the economic engine (jobs, purchases, etc.) that keeps the community and the region alive.

In the last 40 years, many have seen their enrollment decrease, often to the extent that they have had to merge with other higher education entities or close their doors. Like many businesses in America, they cannot continue to be successful in doing things as they always have. So, are small rural Colleges and Universities viable?

There was a comic strip in the 1940-1970’s by Walt Kelly, Jr called Pogo. One of Pogo’s famous quotes was, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Rural institutions often underrate themselves. One University with about 2,000 students, said we can’t grow because the large State University is only 45 miles away and that is where everyone wants to go. As we worked with them, we convinced them that they offered something that the much larger campus couldn’t.  They offer a more personal touch campus where you obtain an excellent education and “only” 45 miles from a university of over 40,000. Once they accepted this vision and market it to potential students, they were able to double their enrollment in four years.

Many rural campuses (especially public institutions) often see themselves as commuter campuses. It is a limiting vision to have. Winston

Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Bringing residence students to your campus not only provides growth opportunities but adds diversity that will enrich the commuter student’s educational experience. It will also be good for the local community. Institutions in metropolitan areas often complain that their students do not engage in on-campus opportunities because the local area offers so much distraction (professional sports, major entertaining events, major events brought to the community by industry). The rural institution has the opportunity to be the “destination” not only for their students but for the local community as well.

We always encourage rural campuses to form an active “Town/Gown” committee and support it vigorously. One complaint we often hear is that our community isn’t supportive of our students. At one institution, we had identified several rural institutions that had very positive “Town/Gown” images. We put together bus tours to these communities and had the College’s town businesspeople visit with the town and College individuals in those communities. They came back excited about the business opportunities that a small “College” town could provide that worked for both the academic institution and the town. Over just five years, remarkable changes occurred in the community. Everyone was better off.

We often hear, we are too far away from a major city or we’re not located in a desirable resort area. Again, those are just mental blocks. Your first job is to re­ educate your faculty and staff to the positive that your institution has to offer. One campus with only under 3,000 students (they had lost enrollment over the past ten years) felt exactly that way. We had a forum to discuss the things we did have to offer and why they were a great fit for some students. The campus started to focus on campus life and the fact that it was only 2-3 hours away from two large metro areas, the ocean and beautiful beaches and mountains. Today, students have grown up to not see 2-3 hours as that big of issues. Often it takes nearly that long to drive from one side of a metro area to the other.

Once the focus moved from what they weren’t to what they had to offer, they were able to grow to nearly 8,000 students. The community now has numerous student apartments, restaurants, and a developing classy downtown area. It is moving to be a true “College” town.

Another opportunity that is often overlooked is International students. Small institutions often think that international students wouldn’t want to attend a small rural institution. I am sure that is true for some international students, but many want a campus that will offer them a safe haven during their academic years away from home. One institution located in the lower mid-west was able to increase its international enrollment from less than 250 to nearly 1,000 in three years. The international students were introduced to a University in a small community where they got a lot of individual attention, and the US students got an introduction to students from all over the world. A significant enhancement to their classroom experience.

Another key  factor that is especially critical for small rural institutions relates to a quote from one of Jim Collins’s books, “Good to Great.” It is essential that you “Get the right people on the bus and get the right people in the right seats and get the wrong people off the bus.” It is a positive for all institutions, but small institutions do not have the luxury of often having multiple individuals in various departments/units. Institution leadership often worry about the “get the wrong people off the bus,” and the negative push back from the local community, if these are local individuals. Yes, this will be necessary sometime, but the focus needs to be on “get the right people in the right seats”! Most people want to do a good job, but if we have them in a position that does not fit their skill set, then we have a lose-lose situation. We need to take the time to evaluate an individual’s skill set. If some aren’t good with people, don’t put them or keep them in a position that requires that above other skills. They might do well in a purchasing position that is more research-oriented than handling students’ complaints in the business office.

Another approach recommended by Jim Collins is when addressing a problem “shift the decision from a “what” question (‘what should we do”) into a “who” decision(‘who would be the right person to take responsibility for this”). You will be amazed at how often weak employees in one position shine once they are in an environment where their skill set is a plus.

The Coronavirus (COVID 19) have brought new challenges and opportunities to higher education.  Financially weak institutions may not be able to sustain their financial viability before full recovery occurs.  However, small rural institutions may be able to market their remoteness and small enrollment as safer and more responsive than their larger sister institutions.

So, are small rural Colleges and Universities viable? Absolutely, but each has its history, culture, and opportunities. It is so important to know that no one approach fits all institutions. With small rural institutions, its history and its regional culture play a critical role in not only what you do but how you do it.

Dr. Allen Meadors is an American higher education professor and administrator. He has worked in international higher education as President/CEO of St. John International University in Torino, Italy and served as Executive Director for Higher Education for the Ministry of Higher Education in the United Arab Emirates. He is currently serving as an Associate Editor for the journals “Frontiers in Public Health” and “Frontiers in Education”.

His previous US career included serving as President/Chancellor of three US state universities including Penn State Altoona (February 1994 to June 1999); University of North Carolina-Pembroke (July 1999 to June 2009); and University of Central Arkansas (July 2009 to September 2011).  Prior positions held include Dean of Health, Social and Public Services, Eastern Washington University; Dean of Public Health, University of Oklahoma, Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute; and an executive at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas.

Allen currently serves on the Edu Alliance Advisory Council and is Associate Editor of Frontiers in Public Health