September 28, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education – Insights from OECD’s Education at a Glance 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the world into an unprecedented crisis. It has affected people regardless of nationality, level of education, income or gender.

However, the same has not been true for its consequences, which have hit the most vulnerable hardest. Education is no exception. This pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in the education systems – from access to devices or technologies needed for online education, and the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, up to the misalignment between resources and needs. While students from privileged backgrounds and in cities could find their way past closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and in remote areas have remained shut out when their schools shut down. This has created a huge learning gap among students across the world.

Lockdowns to contain the spread of the pandemic have posed several challenges for school education globally. While the educational community has made concerted efforts to maintain learning continuity during this period, children and students have had to rely more on their own resources to continue learning remotely. Teachers also had to adapt to new pedagogical concepts and modes of delivery of teaching, causing great inconvenience for many who are not from the technical backgrounds. The pandemic has also had a severe impact on higher education as universities closed their premises and countries shut their borders in response to lockdown measures.

While the pandemic has inflicted immense loss to the educational community, the challenges do not end with the immediate crisis. The community will experience many other long-term challenges in the coming years. In this article, we take a look at the current and long-term impact of Covid-19 on education, as presented by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) publication Education at a Glance 2020. While the publication focuses mainly the OECD and its partner countries, it contributes to the global educational community as they look towards international policy experiences, data and analyses as they develop their policy responses during this crisis. The publication brings OECD’s analysis on both quantitative and internationally comparable indicators, with focus on the current pandemic. It provides insights into its economic consequences for education, and also the dynamics of reconciling public health with maintaining educational provision.

The loss of instructional time delivered in a school setting

To contain the spread of the virus, most governments around the world have imposed a nationwide lockdown and have closed schools, colleges and universities. According to Education at a Glance 2020, out of the 38 OECD countries and 8 partner countries covered by it, China was the first to close schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country imposed school closures on 16 February 2020 in some parts and then extended nationwide about a week later. Soon, other countries followed suit as the pandemic expanded, and according to the publication by the end of March, school closures had been implemented to some extent in all 46 countries covered by Education at a Glance.

  • Loss of instructional week across countries – While the publication maintained that it is difficult to estimate accurately the number of instruction weeks affected in all countries, it said that by the end of June 2020, some degree of school closure was effective for at least 7 weeks in 2 countries (4%), 8-12 weeks in 6 countries (13%), 12-16 weeks in 24 countries (52%), 16-18 weeks in 13 countries (28%) and more than 18 weeks in China.

OECD’s Education at a Glance maintained that the actual impact may have been less severe as some of these periods included scheduled school breaks. It said that in many European and Southern Hemisphere countries, Easter holidays scheduled in mid-April and/or spring vacations between April and early May have mitigated the impact of school closure by up to two weeks. In Japan for instance, there is a two-week spring vacation in late March. According to the publication, some countries have also reorganized their school years to minimize the loss of instruction time.

International student mobility

The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic also has severely affected higher education as universities across the world closed their premises and countries shut their borders in response to lockdown measures. According to the Education at a Glance, the crisis has affected not just the continuity of learning and the delivery of course material, but also the safety and legal status of international students in their host countries, and students’ perception of the value of studying abroad for their degree. Below are some of the major impacts of COVID-19 on international students, according to the Education at a Glance:

  • Implications of university closures – The international students were particularly badly hit at the start of the lockdown as they have had to sort out the implications of university closures on their status on campus and within their host country. Students had to decide whether to return home with limited information about when they might return, or remain in their host country with restricted employment and education opportunities, all while sorting out their visa status. While some countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have offered leniency around visa rules, or allowed students to remain on campus, this has not been the case everywhere.
  • Universities’ unpreparedness – Another challenge caused by the pandemic, according to the OECD’s publication is, while higher education institutions have sought to use technology and offer online classes and learning experiences as a substitute for in-class time to ensure the continuity of education, many universities struggled and lacked the experience and time they needed to conceive new ways to deliver instruction and assignments. Examinations were also affected, causing disruption to students’ learning trajectories and progression.
  • Losing the benefits of international mobility – Beyond the transactional learning experience, these students are also losing out on other benefits of international mobility such as international exposure, access to a foreign job market and networking.
  • Repercussions on funding of institutions – A decrease in the share of international students may, in turn, have severe repercussions on the funding model of some higher education institutions where international students pay higher tuition fees than domestic ones. Countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States that rely heavily on international students paying differentiated fees will suffer the greatest losses, according to the Education at a Glance.
  • Value proposition of universities – Students are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money to consume online content. They go to universities to meet great people, have inspiring conversations with faculty, collaborate with researchers in the laboratory and experience the social life on campus. According to the OECD analysis, with the enrolment of international students for the next academic year severely compromised, it will cut into universities’ bottom line, affecting not only their core education services, but also the financial support they provide domestic students, as well as research and development activities.
  • Productivity risks in advanced sectors – Many countries traditionally relied on international student mobility to facilitate the immigration of foreign talent and contribute to both knowledge production and innovation nationally. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have reduced barriers to the migration of highly qualified students, facilitating their entry into the labor market after graduation. According to the OECD’s Education at a Glance, a decline in international student mobility in these countries risks affecting productivity in advanced sectors related to innovation and research in the coming years.
  • Students’ perception of the value of their degree – According to OECD, in contrast to previous economic downturns, the lockdown measures of this current crisis have affected the delivery of learning and the experience of studying abroad in ways that have no precedent. It said all of this is likely to influence students’ perception of the value they will get from studying abroad in relation to the price they are willing to pay.

Public financing of education

The COVID-19 crisis has caused severe human suffering and loss of life. The exponential rise in infected patients and the dramatic consequences of serious cases of the disease have put significant strain on the health sector. As part of the efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic, governments has closed down entire economic sectors and imposed widespread restrictions on mobility. As a result, the sanitary crisis evolved into a major economic crisis, which according to Education at a Glance is expected to burden societies for years to come.

According to the OECD’s latest Economic Outlook, even the most optimistic scenarios predict a brutal recession. The organization’s Education at a Glance 2020 maintained that even if a second wave of infections is avoided, global economic activity is expected to fall by 6% in 2020, with average unemployment in OECD countries climbing to 9.2%, from 5.4% in 2019. It said that in the event of a second large-scale outbreak triggering a return to lockdown, the situation would be worse.

According to the publication, total public expenditure on primary to tertiary education in 2017 was 11% on average across OECD countries. However, it said that the slowdown of economic growth associated with the spread of the virus may affect the availability of public funding for education in OECD and partner countries, as tax income declines and emergency funds are funneled into supporting increasing healthcare and welfare costs.

OECD’s Education at a Glance 2020 maintained that while economic crises have put pressure on public budgets in the past, the current crisis may affect education budgets more quickly as public revenues decline sharply and governments review prioritization of education in national budgets. It added that forecasts predict the pandemic will lead to slower growth in government spending in the coming year, and that if the share of government spending devoted to education were to remain unchanged, education spending would continue to grow but at significantly lower rates than before the pandemic.