UNESCO's framework for the day after COVID-19 in higher education

Francesc Pedró - Director UNESCO IESALC
UNESCO's framework for the day after COVID-19 in higher education
UNESCO's framework for the day after COVID-19 in higher education

It is essential to approach post-pandemic planning with political realism, avoiding maximalism, and, at the same time, with great flexibility. The framework that UNESCO has developed [1] to help higher education institutions and governments deal with the complexity that will characterize the progressive opening of classrooms is based on two primary principles:

  1. Ensuring the right to higher education for all within a framework of equal opportunity and non-discrimination is the priority. Therefore, all policy decisions affecting, directly or indirectly, higher education should be guided by this right. The primary responsibility for ensuring that this right is enforced lies with the States, which must generate adequate regulatory, funding, and incentive frameworks, as well as promote and support inclusive, relevant, sufficient, and quality programs and initiatives. In particular, it is the responsibility of the State to generate a political environment that, while respecting the autonomy of HEI, is conducive to a way out of the crisis that guarantees health security while optimizing the conditions for institutions to advance in quality and equity. 
  2. Do not leave any student behind, in line with the primary purpose of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The crisis impacts differently on different student profiles, but it is undeniable that it deepens existing inequalities and generates new ones. It is imperative to address, as a priority, the pedagogical, economic, and socio-emotional needs of vulnerable students -those who, due to their personal or socio-economic characteristics, may have had, or are having, greater difficulties in continuing their education in non-traditional modalities. 

Although uncertainty still hangs over the horizon, it seems clear that the reopening will not mean a return to teaching and research normality as we have known it, nor will it be as abrupt as the closing. Based on the example of what is already happening with the reopening of schools in different countries, both in Asia and in Europe, it seems plausible that the reopening will be done with strict health measures that will result in: 

a) smaller groups of students in classrooms whose volume will depend on the spatial conditions of the classrooms and institutions; and 

b) with a smaller number of face-to-face classes per group, due to the imperative of space availability. 

In short, the forms of teaching and learning that have emerged as contingency formulae will evolve and consolidate. They will become, once refined, part of the hybrid model with which we will have to live for the time being and which may become the new pedagogical norm in higher education in the context of a foreseeable restructuring of provision. 

UNESCO's reference framework outlines two fundamental strategies for dealing with this foreseeable, and desirable, restructuring. The first is to recover, and the second is to redesign. It would not be necessary to wait for the reopening to begin to deploy these strategies, but institutions should take them on now as part of their commitment to the future.

Recovering means, in line with the principles outlined above, designing pedagogical measures for formative assess and generate compensatory mechanisms to support learning, particularly for disadvantaged students. Technology can be used as a support tool for the personalization of remedial activities. Although there are very solid technological assessment tools, it seems more advisable, and easy to manage, to aim at a more open and asynchronous assessment.

In this respect, there are some strategies that, despite being infrequent in higher education, can bear significant results, such as 

  • Individualized tutoring; 
  • Small learning groups for leveling in subjects that are critical because of their instrumental nature; and 
  • Summer (or winter) schools intended to offer compensatory seminars. Inevitably, the implementation of initiatives such as these carries a not inconsiderable associated cost, but the benefits in terms of quality of learning and equity far outweigh the costs. 

At the same time, it is necessary to plan how training provision should be restructured, and this requires a redesign strategy which, in UNESCO's view, should focus on three main axes:

  1. Document the pedagogical changes introduced during the crisis and their impact; attention should be paid to the adverse effects of emergency distance education and to the Coronateaching Syndrome. The critical question is whether the experience gained can be capitalized on for a redesign of these processes, maximizing the advantages of face-to-face classes while taking more significant advantage of technologies, and secondly, how far each institution wants or can go.  
  2. Promote internal reflection on the renewal of the teaching and learning model. This reflection would be better carried out if higher education institutions have offices of innovation and pedagogical support. Their role is to develop teaching skills, to promote pedagogical innovation, and to accumulate and disseminate the evidence resulting from its evaluation.  
  3. Learning from mistakes and scaling up digitalization, hybridization, and ubiquitous learning. Institutions must unfold strategies that do not rely solely on a single technology but combine several to ensure that all students are reached or, just as importantly, that technological solutions do not harm those who are already disadvantaged. Each institution, and each discipline or field, must find the most appropriate combination of technologies and resources to enhance pedagogical impact without sacrificing equity and inclusion.

We usually say that in every crisis, there is always an opportunity. Perhaps, in this case, it is that of pedagogical revision and restructuring the provision of higher education. Let us hope that many institutions will embark on the necessary educational renewal that favors both quality and equity.

[1] More details of the UNESCO framework for the day after COVID-19 in higher education at:  www.iesalc.unesco.org/en


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government