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COVID-19’s immense impact on equity in tertiary education

by Roberta Malee Bassett and Nina Arnhold

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread across the globe, it has hit hardest in many of the global centres of tertiary education. Emerging tertiary education powerhouses China and South Korea were among those affected first. Within weeks, however, the virus was global, and every continent and nearly every country had to react. The immediate actions were roughly the same at world-class universities, technical colleges, and all forms of tertiary education provision in between: shut down campuses; send students home; deliver instruction remotely, where possible; accept a lost academic term where remote delivery is not possible. In few countries was the tertiary education sector able to respond by utilising a well-informed, already prepared playbook for rapid closure of its physical plant. So, today, the world finds 99% of all formally enrolled students in tertiary education affected. In effect, these students are serving as part of a global experiment, with a wide variety of modalities being tried (with differing levels of effectiveness and quality) for continued provision of their tertiary education.

Three main equity implications are emerging in this first flush of change brought about by the pandemic: lives have been uprooted and left unmoored; the digital divide exposes the socioeconomic inequity of distance learning; and there is a disproportionate likelihood that under-served and at-risk students will not return when campuses reopen. Recognising these equity challenges as early as possible should allow institutions and governments to fashion interventions that mitigate the impacts and environmental barriers to students’ returning to their studies.



1. Students’ lives, not just their academic programs, have been disrupted

When their campuses closed, many students were forced to leave their dormitories and hostels. For many, especially those from lower economic groups or unsafe, unstable, or nonexistent family environments, these residence halls are home. Many students rely on their campus facilities as primary sources of meals, health care, and support services, including academic and mental health counselling. Moreover, many students work either on campus or locally, to earn money to cover expenses. The ecosystem that supports their academic commitments also provide a well-rounded life experience for millions of students, in countries at all income levels. In many cases, institutions did not have the capacity to intervene to support their most vulnerable students, who were left adrift.

While the scale and quality of campus provision varies widely across regions, countries and institutions, for many students, it is their home. So, all over the world, the loss of this community upends students’ lives and may have lasting negative effects on these students and their families.

Next Section: 2. The digital divide has been exposed