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The fight to not be left behind

21 April 2022

Low and middle income countries have made significant progress towards increasing access to education at all levels, but the COVID-19 pandemic may undo years of progress made in tertiary education, Crawford PhD graduate Wannaphong Durongkaveroj writes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions in the education sector worldwide. With the closure of educational facilities affecting over 900 million students globally, scholars have sought to understand the pandemic’s impact on learning outcomes.

Researchers from the Centre for Global Development (CGD) conducted a systematic review of 40 empirical studies to identify learning loss and school dropout rates in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools.

As expected, most studies found negative impacts of school shutdowns on learning loss and dropout rates. Poorer students were more likely to be hit harder with the “pandemic consistently boosting learning inequality.”

While much of the focus has been on pre-primary, primary and secondary school, there is scant evidence available on higher education, and the limited research that is available comes mostly from well-established universities in high-income countries.

Researchers from Arizona State University, one of the largest public universities in the United States, surveyed 1,500 undergraduate students in 2020. It found that a large number of students experienced a decrease in wages and weekly hours worked, and some lost work as a result of the pandemic, which impacted their studies.

A portion of students also delayed graduation, withdrew from classes, and intended to change majors, and the transition from in-person to online teaching also had unexpected negative results. Overall, these studies suggest that the pandemic negatively impacted students’ learning outcomes in high income countries.

However, little is known about how the pandemic impacted students in low and middle income countries.

One 2021 study surveyed 100 undergraduate students at Ramkhamhaeng University, one of the largest public universities in Thailand. During this period, all educational institutions in the country, including Ramkhamhaeng University, had shifted to fully-online class delivery.

Undergraduate students were asked about their current learning outcomes and what they expected those outcomes would have been in the absence of the pandemic. The preliminary results found that the COVID-19 outbreak negatively impacted the students’ expected academic outcomes.

The students expected a 0.17 point decline in their semester grade point average (GPA), and about two-thirds of the students surveyed expected a decline in their GPA due to the pandemic. Moreover, students studied two hours less per week.

Overall, the estimated effects on GPA and weekly study hours in this Thailand study seem to be larger than those seen in high-income countries.

Classified by the World Bank as a upper-middle income country, Thailand may not be representative of developing nations, but the initial results are concerning.

There are several reasons why the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent closure of schools and the shift to online learning may have led to worse outcomes for tertiary students in low and middle income countries.

First, education sector budgets are lower in these nations than in high-income countries, likely making the transition to online learning more difficult due to limited access to technology and expertise for students and staff. In fact, the World Bank and UNESCO found that two-thirds of low and lower-middle income countries cut their public education budgets since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, students in developing countries may experience greater obstacles in a home learning environment, such as poor Internet service, high costs, and limited interaction among students.

Additionally, students in countries severely affected by the pandemic may have been dealing with health challenges of their own, or may have had a family member who became sick or unemployed, without an adequate social security system to provide support.

This is of particular concern for developing countries, given the sheer size of the informal workforce. Without proper social protection and contracts, these workers are vulnerable to losing their jobs and income during the COVID-19 crisis. This loss of income makes it more difficult for students to afford online learning devices.

Therefore, the unprecedented shift to online learning during the pandemic may have translated into worse learning outcomes for tertiary students in developing countries.

While a single case study from Thailand is useful, research on the region is still extremely limited, and more evidence is needed to better understand how the pandemic affects higher education in developing countries.

As the pandemic enters its third year and tertiary students continue to navigate their studies, understanding and measuring the affects of the pandemic on learning outcomes will be essential if developing countries are to avoid falling behind.

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Updated:  18 July 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team