A Year in Review: How the Higher Education Sector Overcame Some of its Greatest Challenges in 2020

In 2020, the coronavirus crisis significantly disrupted the higher education sector. We reflect on how institutions overcame and adapted to the many challenges they faced.  

In 2020, the coronavirus crisis had ripple effects across the globewhether that related to health, employment, relationships, travel plans, or study decisions 

The pandemic had a significant impact on education, with the closure of schools, the cancellation of exams, and the need for social distancing between students and educators 

Universities were no exception, with many campuses closing and university events cancelled to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.  

As the year comes to an end and with vaccines on the horizon, it’s time to look back over some of the key challenges that the higher education sector overcame in 2020.  

Supporting staff and students 

When the coronavirus crisis began to develop, staff and students across the world turned to their institutions for guidance on how to manage the consequences, including many students who faced travel restrictions and those students who were stranded in university accommodation 

According to The Independentmany universities worked tirelessly to help their stranded international students travel home. 

New York University, which “has more foreign students than any college in the country,” created the NYU Student Emergency Grant to assist student with difficult travel arrangements.  

In England, recent efforts have also been made to get university students home for the winter breakOn 30 November, COVID-19 testing began for all university students, followed by a “travel window” in which those who tested negative could return home to their families.  

Additionally, universities stepped up their mental health efforts to support students. A study by Dr Pradeep Sahu, lecturer at the University of the West Indies, predicted that the closure of university campuses would have a direct effect on the mental health of students and faculty.  

In the paper, which was released in April, Dr Sahu stated: “Universities should place an emphasis on mental health support… Any student experiencing feelings of heightened anxiety about COVID-19 should be provided with proper psychological support well in time.” 

Many universities acknowledged the anxiety that staff and students would be experiencing as a result of the pandemic, and as a result, created mental health support that could be accessed remotely.  

According to the Russell Group, their universities developed “a range of programs and initiatives to respond to student needs” during the pandemic.   

ThUniversity of Leeds still offers 30-minute, same-day virtual appointments for immediate mental health needs and the University of Exeter developed a range of evidence-informed CBT self-help prevention materials. 

Adapting to evolving situations  

With evidence emerging that the coronavirus pandemic spread easily among groups in close proximity, universities across the world had no choice but to close their campuses to staff and students.  

This meant the cancellation of in-person teaching and examinations, forcing institutions to find alternative ways to continue educational delivery 

Many universities chose to shift most of their classes online, which, according to The Guardian, demonstrated “remarkable determination to continue providing their students with lectures, seminars, and tutorials. 

The Harvard Business Review reports that, before the pandemic, higher education lagged behind other sectors regarding their investment in online learning.  

In 2017, less than 5% of US college budgets were dedicated to IT spending, showing education to be “one of the least digitized and most people-intensive economic sectors.” 

Yet the pandemic has significantly accelerated the shift to online learning. According to the latest QS report, Higher Education in 2020: How COVID-19 Shaped this Year, 94% of surveyed international students are now taking part in at least some degree of online learning, with 55% of respondents learning entirely via virtual means. 

To compensate for the disruption to their education, some institutions, such as Thomas University in the US, opted to reduce its tuition fees for those students affected. 

Experts predict that many features of online learning will remain in higher education as the pandemic subsides, with staff and students benefiting from the flexibility. 

Applying innovative thinking 

The coronavirus crisis is a constantly evolving situation, requiring institutions to be forward thinking in their approach to certain challenges.  

In March, Business Breakthrough University in Tokyo held a unique virtual graduation ceremony.  

According to Business Insider, the university used Newme mobile robots with a tablet to host a Zoom call which gave graduates the “experience of walking across the stage and accepting their diplomas at the Hotel Grand Palace in Tokyo. 

As the new academic year began, universities across the world were also faced with the challenge of replicating their orientation or ‘fresher’s’ week without in-person contact.  

The Australian National University, along with many other institutions, set up a Virtual Open Week in which students were able to take part in question-and-answer sessions and online campus tours, while learning about internships, clubs, and events 

For a more in-depth overview of how the higher education sector responded to the coronavirus crisis this year, please see our latest report: Higher Education in 2020: How COVID-19 Shaped this Year. 



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