The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in the European Higher Education Area


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Following the adoption of the Rome Ministerial Communique, the plenary meeting of the Bologna Follow up Group (BFUG), the monitoring  body of the Bologna Process took place on 15- 16 April 2021, with 103 participants including representatives of ministries of education from 49 countries and 10 consultative members[1].

Among other topics, the meeting focused on the implication of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education and research (HER) on which ETUCE brought the voice of academics and researchers. Andreas Keller, ETUCE vice-president, presented to the plenary the ETUCE report on “The impact of COVID-19 crisis on higher education and research staff’, underlining the enormous impact that the pandemic had on working conditions of academics and research. While academics, particularly women, struggled to balance the remote work with the increased overtime, care responsibilities for children and the elderly at home, online teaching and learning also forced academics to neglect their research duties, to ensure good preparation and provision of online teaching for their students. In addition, the financial crisis, along with a drop of applications and admissions to higher education institutions, sorely reduced budgets for higher education. This resulted in salary cuts or redundancies of teachers and researchers, and deteriorated working conditions, especially those working with fixed-term contracts which are not (or not sufficiently) extended despite disruptions in research caused by the pandemic.

The situation that ETUCE pointed out at the BFUG meeting is fully reflected in recent European data.

A new study published by the European Commission on ‘The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education’ provides updated information on the impact of the pandemic on academic staff and their wellbeing. The report underlines that teaching staff did not have enough time to prepare to and, therefore, adapt their learning material and pedagogical methods to the emergency remote teaching. The lack of teachers’ skills and training for online emergency teaching constitutes another major challenge. According to the report, “the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a significant deterioration in educational inequality in pre-tertiary education”, expressing great concern about inequalities for access and participation in higher education. The European study shows that increased workloads for teaching staff, concern, frustration, worry, uncertainty and inconvenience are among some of the causes of teachers’ wellbeing degradation. As the report also underlines that only little data are available on teachers’ wellbeing during the COVID-19, ETUCE stresses the need for further research and information on this field. 

In light of these facts, at the BFUG meeting, ETUCE called on the governments and higher education institutions of the Bologna Process to:

  • Guarantee sustainable public investment in higher education and research, as one of the ways to ensure long-term recovery from the current health, economic and social crisis.
  • Extend and improve the IT infrastructures in higher education institutions, provide efficient learning materials, tools and platforms, promote Open Educational Resources (OER), and protect teaching intellectual property rights.
  • Support teaching and administrative staff throughout permanent jobs for permanent tasks, sufficient and adequate professional training and continuous professional development; technical assistance; COVID-19 tests and vaccinations as a prerequisite for a return to on-site teaching, sustainable workload; and paid parental leave for staff.
  • Promote competence-based teaching, learning and assessment; safeguard quality standards of higher education; and adapt quality assurance regulations concerning learning and teaching under pandemic conditions.

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[1]  Council of Europe, UNESCO, ENQA, EQAR, ESU, Eurostudent, EUA, EURASHE, ETUCE - EI European Region, BusinessEurope.