Pandemic shock ‘has exposed university teaching inequalities’

Governments have focused on building up a lavishly funded research elite, but the forced switch online has made them realise losers in this system cannot cope

June 22, 2021
Envy, inequality

The pandemic has exposed gaping inequalities in universities’ ability to switch online, a conference has heard; a shock that could renew policymakers’ focus on overall teaching quality rather that funnelling money to a select few star research universities.

Prior to the lockdowns that forced teaching online, governments had  been pushing a few elite universities to achieve “global excellence”, said Isak Froumin, head of the Institute of Education at the Moscow-based HSE University.

But this led to a “growing stratification of the higher education system, especially in big systems”, he told delegates at Times Higher Education’s Young Universities Summit – and these fissures had been starkly exposed during the pandemic.

Stronger universities showered with money from various national excellence initiatives “became even stronger”, he said.

“We found that these universities that already received additional support from the government, they took a lead in switching to remote teaching. They had strong teaching digital resources. They had strong digital infrastructure,” he said, drawing on research conducted by HSE and Beijing Normal University about how the Russian and Chinese systems responded to the shutdown.

However, “weaker universities, or say non-elite universities...found themselves in a very difficult situation”, he said.

In Russia, he said, HSE’s joint research found that 20 per cent of universities merely “imitated” distance learning. “This gap became dangerous for the system,” he said.

“It's not their fault. They didn’t have resources to invest in development. They didn’t have experience to do innovation.”

Governments that pushed universities to switch online suddenly found radically different capabilities to do so among institutions, he said.

The question now, he said, was whether this would lead to a broader turn in the policy debate, away from championing “excellence” and towards support for all teaching.

“If you look at the rhetoric of ministers of education in big countries, they now have more concerns about those universities that are lagging behind this elite group,” said Professor Froumin.

Excellence strategies will continue, he cautioned. “But I think, I hope, that they realise the danger of over-stratification within the system, and they will support all universities in some degree.”

Ellen Hazelkorn, a former policy adviser to Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, concurred, and said that there was now “increasing concern” over the vast majority of students who studied outside highly ranked universities.

“Fundamentally, teaching should always have been the issue,” she said. “We spent too little time thinking about that. There’s been too much focus also on research with little impact.”

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