The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that it is possible to change the form and cut the cost of higher education, speakers at a conference on international higher education in the Gulf region said.
The Gulf Higher Education Conference brought together 1,100 participants from more than 70 countries, including 15 university and college presidents and over 100 government and ministry officials from the Gulf region.
The two-day event, held on October 10-11, used an online AI-powered conference platform to simulate an in-person conference. In a dozen virtual discussions and other events, speakers focused on topics including technology in education, new models of exchange programs, and the recruitment of students from Gulf countries. A follow-up, the Gulf Student Engagement Fair, will take place on December 11-12.
In his keynote speech, Amr Salama, secretary-general of the Association of Arab Universities, focused on the opportunities as well as the constraints introduced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As humans, we love to be in contact with other humans. But Covid-19 proved we can go beyond our institutions and curricula offering classes online.”Milena Rubel
A faculty member at Harvard University
He noted the deepening gaps for students in less fortunate countries, with poor infrastructure and internet connection. (See two related articles, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality,” and “Floods, Locusts, and Covid-19: Somali Students and Universities Struggle.”)
Cutting Costs with Technology
But Milena Rubel, a faculty member at Harvard University, saw an opportunity to lower the costs of higher education and ensure social justice.
“As humans, we love to be in contact with other humans. But Covid-19 proved we can go beyond our institutions and curricula offering classes online,” she said.
“Above all, I think of how to use technology to lower the costs of higher education since we all know how expensive is to study in the United States. I see this an opportunity to benefit those who come to our institutions and help others to join.”
In a panel titled “Reimagining Higher Education,” four academics and university presidents from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain discussed institutional responses to Covid-19, notably the shift to online education.
Lilac Al-Safadi, president of the Saudi Electronic University and the first woman to lead a co-ed university in her country, sees opportunities to build a new education ecosystem.
“Covid-19 has changed the overall perception and increased credibility of online learning, but much is still to be done,” she said. “For a diversified economy, we need to diversify universities and learning models.” (See a related commentary, “Where Does Higher Education Go from Here?”)
Students should be able to study in multiple modes, “switching seamlessly between on-campus, blended, and online education and could even use mobile phones to suit their lifestyles and to fit their learning with their day-to-day activities,” Al-Safadi said.
“This moment of disruptions has given us a moment to evaluate the need for changes and reimagine higher education, not just changes in delivery.‘‘Riyad Hamzah
President of the University of Bahrain
They should also be able “to mix and match degrees from different institutes to share and discover credits and competencies with the opportunities that may advance their academic and professional goals,” she added. “Every learner should have his/her own custom-made kind of learning path.”
Innovation Is More Urgent
Riyad Hamzah, president of the University of Bahrain, said the pandemic made previous attempts to reimagine higher education more urgent and more obvious.
“This moment of disruptions has given us a moment to evaluate the need for changes and reimagine higher education, not just changes in delivery,” he said. “We should focus on ensuring students’ mastering of their defined learning objectives and not solely on the completion of certain numbers of credit hours. They must be given opportunities to make individual intellectual discoveries.”
Another panel explored ways to make a balance between traditional and innovative models of student engagement and recruitment, relying on social media tools and platforms.
“Our goal is to recruit students from all over the world and to educate students as life learners, not necessarily just for the marketplace,” said Ali Shuhaimy, executive director of enrollment management at the American University of Sharjah.
“Our goal is to recruit students from all over the world and to educate students as life learners, not necessarily just for the marketplace.”Ali Shuhaimy
Executive director of enrollment management at the American University of Sharjah
The university placed first for diversity in the 2017 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, with the highest percentage of international students (84 percent).
Other topics discussed during the conference included increased interest in health and technology-related majors and the feasibility and effectiveness of virtual exchange programs. Linking university programs to industry needs, graduate employment, and the future of technology-based education were also on the agenda.
In order to stay relevant in a changing entrepreneurial world, Al-Safadi thinks universities should rethink their learning models.
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“During the pandemic, we put a clear strategy on whom we want to serve and how to achieve so, besides levering technology to have a personalized learning journey and keeping an eye on the changing learning options,” she said.
“To meet the new needs, we started to talk about short diplomas and interdisciplinary programs, besides making industry part of our DNA.” (See a related article, “Why the World Urgently Needs Interdisciplinary Research and Policy Making.”)