The COVID-19 outbreak has translated into a major education crisis, causing school and university closure worldwide and disruption of regular education services. In the Arab region, where 13 million children and youth are already out-of-school due to conflict, an additional 100 million learners are now affected by school and university interruption. While many Arab countries have developed distance/remote learning solutions to ensure that learning never stops, major concerns remain as to the implications and effectiveness of distance learning modalities. And while many countries, including in the Arab region, see school and university reopening as desirable for the near future, decisions about Catch Up modalities and the organization of the new academic year (2020/2021) are still to be taken.
Against this backdrop, and in the context of the UNESCO’s education response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States (UNESCO Beirut) organized on 21 May 2020 a regional webinar about the impact of COVID-19 on the Higher Education sector and the way forward. The webinar was attended by 30 university rectors from Palestine, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya, Mauritania, Jordan. The webinar aimed in particular to facilitate the sharing of experience and good practices among Arab universities, and to explore ways to effectively mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the Higher Education sector in the Arab region.
In the opening of the webinar, Dr Anasse Bouhlal, UNESCO Beirut’s Programme Specialist for Higher Education, presented an overview of UNESCO’s education response to the COVID-19 crisis. He said: “With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO Beirut scaled up efforts to assist Member States in responding to the crisis and developing alternative solutions to school and university closure, so that learning does not stop. The Higher Education sector sent a circular to the Ministries of Education and Higher Education in the region to offer ideas, suggestions, and recommendations on universities’ response to the crisis, and modalities to adapt university curricula and assessment methods to the current circumstances. We also organized, in partnership with UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Asia-Pacific (UNESCO Bangkok), an inter-regional webinar on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the Higher Education sector in both regions”. Dr Bouhlal added: “Today’s webinar aims to allow for a sharing of experiences, success stories, and best practices among Arab universities, and to allow us to think of the future of education. We also reiterate UNESCO Beirut’s readiness to provide technical assistance to Member States in coping with this crisis”.
Then, each university rector presented a brief overview of the challenges remote learning posed, including in terms of teachers’ preparedness for this kind of teaching and assessment modalities. Rectors also presented their university’s plan for reopening and the measures to be taken to ensure students’ health.
The webinar allowed for an open debate among participants. At the end of the webinar, Dr Bouhlal offered ideas and suggestions for potential cooperation between UNESCO and Higher Education institutions in the Arab region.