Digital shift ‘chance to bring free HE to world’s poor’

Sustainable development expert Jeffrey Sachs also warns against rise of a ‘monopoly Amazon university’

June 15, 2021

The Covid-driven online teaching shift highlights an “unprecedented opportunity” to provide “essentially free” higher education to “millions and millions” of poor students around the world, but the rise of a “monopoly Amazon university” must be guarded against, according to sustainable development expert Jeffrey Sachs.

The Colombia University professor and director of its Center for Sustainable Development, a former special adviser to United Nations secretary generals on its Sustainable Development Goals, also told the British Council’s Going Global conference that the US crackdown targeting academics with research links to China was “disgusting for a society that calls itself free”.

The digital shift in university teaching, accelerated dramatically by the pandemic, offered “unrivalled, absolutely unique, unprecedented opportunities to extend higher education to all learners that seek it”, Professor Sachs told the event, held virtually, on 15 June.

Teaching could now be brought to students at “extraordinarily low cost”, pointed out the economist, whose most recent book, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology and Institutions, was published last year.

“I believe we should be working very hard to develop open online, essentially free, university teaching around the world, so that the millions and millions of students in lower-income countries have a chance for quality education now made possible by digital, as long as you have good connectivity and a device…a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop,” he continued.

“That can be the gateway to higher education now, for young people in villages or who have to work to make a living, but who want higher education. It can also be an opportunity for breakthroughs in continuing adult education around the world.”

The new digital possibilities were “vastly more powerful than the old distance learning models”, Professor Sachs said. “I’m excited about that because I think access is absolutely one of the most important objectives for global society.”

He also said: “Shouldn’t each of us be taking classes ourselves throughout our whole lives, now that we have the chance to do it at home while holding a job, raising a family – but also studying a bit throughout our lifetimes?”

Professor Sachs predicted that higher education was “going to see lots of different kinds of experiments, lots of innovations, lots of new ways of learning”.

But he added: “We should be careful that we don’t end up with one monopoly Amazon university, that would be a disaster…And I don’t mean Amazon, Brazil – you know what I mean.”

Professor Sachs also said that the pandemic had highlighted the unique role of universities across teaching, research, policy, innovation, convening power and global cooperation – essential in rising to global challenges like the pandemic.

In innovation, there was a “bad habit” for Covid vaccines developed in research at the University of Oxford and University of Pennsylvania to be referred to as the AstraZeneca or BioNTech vaccines, he argued. Drug companies were “not the innovators”, he added.

The pandemic “gives us even more reasons for investing in higher education,” he said.

“Governments are not such great collaborators”, whereas academics and universities prioritise international collaboration, Professor Sachs continued.

“I’m aghast at the crackdowns taking place in the United States [on] researchers who collaborate and cooperate with China,” he added.

This, he continued, was “part of a mindset that’s growing in the US government and in other governments…to see other countries as enemies and to try to break connections. It’s our role as universities to keep those connections, to work closely with our Chinese colleagues, for example, not to let some government official or politician without a passport…tell us who is the enemy and who isn’t the enemy, because most of that is a fiction.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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