By Olga Shevchuk – Runner Up
Nowadays, humanity is faced with the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual countries and the whole world have suffered human and economic losses. Countries have been unable to assess the scale of the threat to life and the economy and to develop adequate measures to curb the spread of the virus on time. Since March 2020, countries have made various, necessary decisions to safeguard their population, but unfortunately this compromised educational quality and had a negative impact on the economy. Many of these decisions were criticized sharply by the public. The Republic of Cyprus (‘Cyprus’) was no exception: the restrictions and special regime introduced due to the pandemic were very painfully accepted by citizens, and this was expressed by numerous protests. The purpose of this brief essay is not to evaluate any of the measures taken by the authorities. Rather, its goal is to understand how the existing higher education system of Cyprus can be improved to continue the successful education of students in the new world conditions and to provide them with greater employment prospects.
Obviously, the Cypriot higher education system has been seriously affected by the transition of learning from face-to-face delivery to an online mode of teaching. At the same time, the restrictive travel measures introduced due to the pandemic had an impact on student attendance on campus and in lectures. There is concern that the virtual mode of learning has a negative impact on the students intellectual, interpersonal, and professional abilities and there are anecdotal reports circulating that many employers would prefer not to hire a graduate who studied and received a degree during the pandemic.
The employers’ fears are borne out by the restrictions and shortcomings imposed upon students’ education and the consequent effects this has on employment. All lectures and seminars transitioned to distance learning and there were significant limitations on students’ abilities to access libraries and other offline resources for development, communication and education. The pandemic revealed that the educational system was unprepared to switch to using online forms, in terms of its organisation and lecturers’ training. The limitations on movement across the globe also ended face-to-face education for international students. The quality of education and the resources that students could access during the peak of the pandemic thus suffered as a result. However, the picture is not entirely negative: as a result of the growing familiarity with online forms, it was possible for guest lecturers to give talks online from anywhere in the world.
Now, after a year of restrictions of one sort or another, we can say that educational institutions have successfully carried out the transition to digital platforms for student education. From a technical point of view, the issue of organizing education in the new conditions has been solved partially by the use of Microsoft Teams at universities such as mine at UCLan Cyprus. However, there are a number of additional steps UCLan Cyprus and other universities can take to ensure their students are not blighted by compromised educational opportunities and employment prospects. Due to insufficient training in online forms among lecturers and students, there remains a number of problems in using online learning technologies. For example, some students do not have access to the necessary technologies to undertake the class, while some lecturers are not familiar with online software, which causes the class to run less smoothly than in face-to-face contexts. Distance learning approaches differ significantly from face-to-face ones. In order to enhance the learning experience, it would be better if more students used their video cameras, as well as their microphones. If possible, UCLan Cyprus should introduce initiatives to encourage students to switch on their cameras. For example, lecturers could outline the benefits of using video in terms of student engagement; it improves both student-teacher interaction and the atmosphere in the class among the students.
In addition to pedagogical initiatives and greater training to teach online, special attention should be paid to the development of digital libraries and to gaining access to educational and scientific literature for students. Despite the shift to online library resources, there is still a shortage of free academic publications and newspaper articles that are available for free online. In a pandemic, and also in the context of distance learning for international students, the lack of access to a wide range of electronic academic reading can seriously affect the quality of student education and the students’ academic success.
It is also necessary to develop and support the academic and student communities, providing each with constant opportunities for regular communication and exchanges of ideas and knowledge. To address this, increasing the number of online conferences, seminars and workshops would be incredibly beneficial.
Furthermore, it is important to note that for the successful employment of students at the end of their studies, students must have practical experience throughout their studies in companies and organizations in the area of the job market they wish to work. In my opinion, this issue is extremely acute when it concerns students who are learning remotely during a pandemic. Even before the pandemic, in many educational institutions, student internships were organized formally, and not as a continuation and an integral part of the educational process. Henceforth, universities should embed internships, in-person and virtual, as part of their university courses to the extent possible.
Finally, a wider systematic change is needed. Currently, migration rules decree that students have to reside in Cyprus to learn and study at a Cypriot institution. Similar conditions are required for foreign lecturers, who may be involved in distance learning courses for students in Cyprus. Yet all students are learning remotely and it should not matter where the student or teacher is physically located. It is vital to amend the law on education and migration, allowing foreign students during the pandemic, and perhaps after it, to complete their studies on the basis of distance learning. This will attract international students and leading academics and experts to UCLan Cyprus, resulting in undeniable benefits for the educational system and for the economy.
In conclusion, it is necessary to understand that radical changes have taken place in how education is organized and communicated. Society has approached a new technical revolution, which has influenced and will continue to influence the further development of society, and there can be no unqualified return to the former system. This should be incorporated in the formation of educational programs, lecturers’ training, use of resources, and international students’ and lecturers’ ability to work at UCLan Cyprus or elsewhere.
Cyprus strives to become a world center for the provision of financial and corporate services, as recently announced at the Cyprus Forum. Through the reorientation of education to new technologies and the training and welcoming of highly qualified personnel in these fields, Cyprus can master this niche in the world economy.
The Writing Competition was open to all undergraduate and postgraduate law students and alumni at UCLan Cyprus. The prizes were generously sponsored by L. Papaphilippou & CO LLC and rewarded the essays which best addressed the question set in an original, fluent, persuasive, imaginative and otherwise well written manner.