COVID-19 and UNESCO: Monitoring the Impact on People and Places for Relevant Higher Education


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by Wesley Teter & Libing Wang


Learning Stops
Recently in Herat, Afghanistan a lecturer in a private higher education institution took to the street, declaring: “I am not a beggar. I am a lecturer from the private school. I don’t have a contract to receive my monthly salary; my salary depends on the daily teaching of classes, and now the schools are locked down and I am jobless. I have no provision to support my poor family.” As the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, the Herat Province faces severe impacts on its educational institutions and livelihoods of people. This is especially true for women working in low-paying and informal jobs with no social safety net. As a global pandemic, COVID-19 is intensifying learning inequalities. Countries in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia Pacific region have a key role to play in monitoring the growing impact on people and places to make higher education more responsive and relevant for all, including the most vulnerable learners.

Three months since the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern over the outbreak of novel coronavirus, a clearer picture of the sectors, regions and demographic groups most at risk is emerging. As of late April 2020, 1.2 billion (73.8% worldwide) students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In Southeast Asia, the region is monitoring the impact and scale of educational disruption and what is required going forward.

How will governments in Southeast Asia protect the most vulnerable learners? How will the higher education community continue to respond in terms of quality teaching, research and public service to remain relevant to their local communities? How can UNESCO and stakeholders throughout the region respond to ensure equitable access to quality higher education for all? These are immediate and long-term challenges that will reshape the future of higher education and UNESCO’s multilateral response.

Overcoming Learning Inequalities
UNESCO promotes international solidarity through education, science and knowledge. The COVID-19 outbreak is a public health crisis, and it resonates deeply at the heart of UNESCO’s mission. As the only UN agency with a mandate in higher education, UNESCO has a unique responsibility to serve as a laboratory of ideas to respond effectively to the current pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that scientific cooperation is key when dealing with an international public health issue. It is a stark reminder of the importance of quality education and reliable information, at a time when rumours and misinformation are flourishing. It tells of the power of culture and knowledge to strengthen solidarity, at a time when so many people around the world must keep social distance and stay at home.

UNESCO is fully committed to supporting governments in their initiatives in distance learning, open science, knowledge and culture sharing, as fundamental means to stand together and tighten the bonds of our shared humanity. Monitoring the impact on all people and places is of immediate concern and our gaps in data and understanding of implications for diverse populations such as those in Herat are still unclear. We know that COVID-19 is not only a challenge in terms of public health. It is a challenge to our ideals and to our humanistic values as a global campus.

As part of the Global Education Coalition, launched by UNESCO in March 2020, partners in the Asia-Pacific are working together to mobilise, coordinate, match and deliver distance education through leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches. To date, China has made more than 30,000 online courses for higher education freely available. Countries in Southeast Asia are adapting rapidly and in close coordination across national systems and institutional levels.

As part of the Global Education Coalition, launched by UNESCO in March 2020, partners in the Asia-Pacific are working together to mobilise, coordinate, match and deliver distance education through leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches.

UNESCO is a people-centred forum for ministers, civil servants, researchers and students to discuss key issues of global concern and identify common solutions through higher education – thereby strengthening multilateralism. This shared knowledge and expertise is critical for each country as it considers options to determine its own future of higher education.

Action Principles: Doing Good By All
The COVID-19 pandemic provides opportunities for us to reflect on how to make quality higher education mainstream and ensure equitable access for all. Several action principles are emerging to guide our collective response in Southeast Asia and the wider region. First, we need to build a supportive and inclusive ecosystem, including quality assurance and recognition of online and blended learning programmes, infrastructure development, institutional strategic planning, budgeting and capacity building, and continuing professional development programmes for faculty. Holistic support for learners is also critical as they face isolation and uncertainties about the future of work.

A second action principle is a renewed commitment to fairness. The Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, better known as the Tokyo Convention, is an instrument to promote fair and transparent recognition of qualifications. To date, no country in Southeast Asia has ratified or implemented the Convention. This missing legal foundation is a critical weakness at the policy level to effectively manage recognition of diverse learning pathways, including online learning. Blended learning, the synthesis of online and in-person teaching will be the ‘new normal’ that will combine not only online and offline learning, but also formal, informal and non-formal learning.

And last, a key action principle must be to ensure that higher education teaching, research and services are relevant to local needs. While some faculty and higher education institutions will have available capacity to serve globally, the majority of providers must reassess their place-based relevance, given COVID-19 and its impacts. Building relevance requires leadership, innovation and local stakeholder engagement to rebuild a curriculum that fosters human development and creativity to respond to challenging times ahead.

Going forward, UNESCO will continue to facilitate meaningful dialogue and rally international organisations, civil society and private-sector partners in a broad coalition to ensure learning never stops. As we embark on a decade of action or the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, our responsibility as a community is to leave absolutely no one behind.



The authors wish to thank Ali Mohammad Karimi, Teri Balser, Lim Cher Ping and countless other colleagues for their sharing and insights for this article and UNESCO’s work to ensure equitable access to quality higher education in Asia-Pacific. Please join us on Facebook or email: eisd.bgk@unesco.org.

WESLEY TETER is Senior Consultant for Higher Education, Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development (EISD), UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, Thailand.

LIBING WANG is Chief of Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development (EISD) and Senior Programme Specialist in Higher Education, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, Thailand.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #08. Click here to read the full, online issue.

Dr Wesley Teter spoke as a panellist on The HEAD Foundation  “COVID-19 What Next…?” webinar series: Impact on Higher Education on 17 June 2020. Click here to watch a recording of the webinar.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.