Pandemic shockwaves reset the global education landscape

The onset and rapid spread of Covid-19 in early 2020 may have caused an avalanche of challenges for global education players but it also brought with it an unanticipated awakening. The jolt struck at the core of education sectors, replacing traditional pedagogical approaches overnight to provide country-relevant education opportunities.


As we celebrate the UN International Day of Education under the theme, “Recovering and Revitalizing Education for the COVID-19 generation”, we need to collectively face the challenges and anticipated aftershocks posed by the pandemic on the global educational ecosystem.


It has been a transformative, stressful year for students, teachers, educators, educational leaders, parents and care givers. While some countries had already ventured into online and blended learning modalities, the majority fell behind and found themselves in need of psycho-social support.


For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, education is a lifesaver. It is a thread of hope that can lift them out of a perpetuating cycle of vulnerability.


In developing countries and vulnerable communities, educators and students who were forced to immediately adapt to online modes of learning found themselves further marginalized. The digital divide coupled with the lack of tools to operationalize  online learning modalities in such a short period of time created an untenable situation. The education crisis is so alarming that if urgent action is not taken to support already fragile education systems, the detrimental effects on access to basic education will become a long-term global challenge.


When United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they pledged to ensure that “no one will be left behind” and that they should “endeavor to reach the furthest behind first” to curb inequalities and extreme poverty amongst other things. Little did we anticipate that in one year COVID-19 would impact vulnerable children and youth so that they would not just be left behind; they are now even farther behind than they were prior to the pandemic.


UNICEF projects that between 2019 and 2021, as families lose their sources of income due to COVID-19 and countries are plunged into socioeconomic recession, more people will become poverty stricken. According to projections made, starting in November 2020, some 142 million more children will fall into monetary poor households in developing countries by the end of the year. The total number of children living in poor households globally could reach just over 725 million in the absence of mitigating policies.


January marks the beginning of the new year, where hope floats to the surface. This International Day of Education is fraught with the fears of a continued pandemic and economic downturns that will negatively affect educational opportunities globally. Maybe it can be a starting point though. A launch pad for the movers and shakers working in the education sector to explore alternative pathways for equitable education access so that all children matter – no matter where they were born and where they now live. UNESCO’s COVID-19 Coalition, established to tackle connectivity gaps and facilitate inclusive learning opportunities (made up of UN agencies, civil society, media and IT partners, is a positive example of COVID era collaboration.


In the Arab region, AGFE has been committed to SDG Goal 4 since its inception. We are privileged to be based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has prioritized education with initiatives such as the Vision 2021 National Agenda and UAE Centennial 2071. Public sector commitments have focused on shaping a knowledge-based economy that promotes innovation, research, science, and technology. Long before COVID-19, free mobile internet packages and extensive broadband access have been offered to students in the most remote areas to enable online learning. UAE nationals can attend universities free of charge, higher education institutions serve as innovation incubators and prestigious universities such as the Sorbonne have established campuses in the country.


Public sector entities in the region have not had the same favorable outcomes growing out of their commitment to educational development as in the UAE. Philanthropic organizations such as the AGFE have stepped up to provide some necessary support to deliver inclusive and equitable quality education for all. Higher education in particular plays a key role to empower disadvantaged youth and lift them out of a life of vulnerability. Realizing the challenges to attaining quality university education in a region plagued by conflict, AGFE programs have supported Arab students in the complete student-employee trajectory: from scholarships, mentorships, internships to job opportunities.


While COVID has slowed and even halted activities across the region, ​ongoing initiatives such as our Young Thinkers Program (YTP) supporting the upskilling of Emiratis and Arab youth are gaining momentum. We are solidifying new international, regional, and local partnerships during this period. The AGFE will kick off the MIT Bootcamp in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a blended upskilling program, organized in collaboration with MIT and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) University. Some 120 youth and young employees in the UAE will participate in modules to sharpen their business acumen, critical thinking, leadership, communication, and teamwork skills. The 10-week workshop, adapted from MIT’s prestigious onsite program, will comprise face-to-face coaching sessions at hubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain and include discussions around youth employment challenges in the region. In order to extend opportunities beyond the classroom, winning ideas will be incubated for six months at UAE University’s Science and Innovation Park where projects will be showcased for potential funding at Expo 2020.


The AGFE has also recently partnered with the UAE Ministry of Education and nine leading universities in the UAE to launch the University Consortium for Quality Online Learning (UCQOL) to make online learning programs available to a larger pool of underserved students from the UAE and abroad. By bringing about institutional change at the university level through the UCQOL, key stakeholders will be equipped with the technological expertise to design, develop and deliver high-quality, accredited online programs, ultimately benefiting the students, and helping them to excel throughout their learning.


What does that really mean for a 19-year-old Arab national from a disadvantaged background? He/she can pursue a higher education degree while working to support the family and help a younger sibling through school.


At the center of the recovery and the transformation process, it is hoped that the takeaway from this collective crisis will be a more pragmatic vision for education, driven by enhanced public and private sector commitment towards institutional capacity building, information sharing and multi stakeholder collaboration. What is more important is the need to rely on assessments to inform current and post-COVID education recovery policies with built in contingency plans so that we can reset, and model cost effective, inclusive and sustainable education systems for the benefit of our youth.

Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education