Digital access has become a make or break factor for local tertiary education institutions as the COVID-19 pandemic has dictated that most classes are now online.
The transition has come with cost, in many cases unexpected.
Professor Clement Imbert, chairman of the University of T&T, told the business Guardian that the sudden transition required last March was very costly.
“We had to go online immediately. We had to ramp up all of our technology in that regard. License fees, we had to increase our license fees significantly to make sure that the platforms that we use were very reliable. So we had to have a very robust backup system. But we had to… Therefore we had to spend money on extra licensing fees, extra software and hardware in that regard,” he said adding that their transition was further complicated by the erratic internet connection at the University’s headquarters in Tamana.
“The other thing of course is that devices for people. We had to make sure that there was connectivity. Many lecturers were at home and not connected. There were some issues with connectivity because internet is not very reliable at our headquarters in Tamana.
“Those people had to come to Tamana because they did not have connectivity where they were. That was also a problem,” he said.
All of these expenses were unexpected which added to costs at the university.
“We have had expenses that we did not expect so yes it has put us in a worse position that we were before,” said Imbert
This transition was also concern for the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of T&T, which was at a crossroads concerning what to do with its physical campuses.
“The immediate effect of the pandemic of course was a very sharp pivot to online teaching and learning which resulted in many of the sites not being fully utilised but still generating a heavy expenditure requirement,” said president of COSTAATT Dr Gillian Paul.
This has lead the institution which has eight physical locations across the country, to adjust their business model in the interest of saving money which would be otherwise lost in leases paid for the campuses. Especially when research found that students had been succeeding in the absence of face to face teaching.
“There was no significant damage to performance as a result of the pivot to the large majority of students. So with that consideration the board agreed to modify our business model for us to reduce our physical campus footprint as one of the means of dealing with the financial impact of the pandemic,” she said.
“It is not something that can be done suddenly because you need to make sure that you are not compromising the programme delivery at all. And we expect that maybe by the end of this year we would have sort of reduce the physical footprint at the campus site where we have operations on two floors we might consolidate on one floor,” said Dr Paul who also noted that given the large amount of part time students, online classes would be more favourable even when the pandemic ends.
“A lot of the students have said to us that they really are quite comfortable with the programme in the online mode, and we do not anticipate that all of them would want to come back to face to face because that means the traffic the getting home late, the not seeing the kids because our part time to full time ratio sometimes is as high as 65 per cent part time to 35 per cent full time,” she said.
While COSTAATT has plans to reduce cost via the reduction of its physical occupancy, that ship has already sailed for UTT.
Their campuses at O’Meara and Corinth has been “given up” as the University sought to reduce costs, with their operations shifted to Tamana and San Fernando Technical Institute respectively.
Recently, the university was forced to meet with the student council concerning a planned adjustment to student fees, while the jury is still out concerning enrolment numbers which have been delayed due to the pandemic’s push back of Caribbean Examination Council CAPE exams and results, both of these would affect the university going forward, but Professor Imbert was confident the University would survive this time of adversity.
“Gate fees and the subvention from the government, providing that they are paid on time...the university is in a place where it can survive,” said Imbert, who was also very confident in the direction the University had been heading with several of its courses and projects.
While facing similar challenges posed to tertiary institution CTS College of Business and Computer Science has found a degree of success during the pandemic, primarily due to their quick transition to online learning.
Executive director of CTS Ravi Ragoonath said the institution actually enjoyed increased enrolment during the period as the online courses increased the availability for students around the country as he noted that students who previously could not come to its Montrose campus for courses were now benefiting from online access.
“Our story is a lot different. We have actually seen an increase in enrolment post-COVID as opposed to pre-COVID,” said Ragoonath, “we have had good enrolment numbers before, it’s even better now and we see an increase in the number of students enrolling in our short courses. Even in our tertiary programs as well, the numbers are better than they were prior to the start. So what it’s telling us to is that there’s a greater consumption rate for the online programs.”
Ragoonath said, however, while they have seen increased enrolment and some increase in profits, their profitability per student has not increased as they have reduced the prices on a lot of their courses, or offered shorter courses as they are increasingly aware that the economic situation of the country has limited the spending power of prospective students.
Similarly, Dr Paul confirmed that COSTAATT has also looked to adopt shorter courses based on the economic climate
Ragoonath argued the move to online has meant the institution is currently paying rent for three buildings which are not in use.
The shift the online also proved to be cost effective in this regard as they organisation like UTT and COSTAATT have sought to reduce their rent bill, in their case with a larger reduction in costs.
“We had to move online, so what we did, we took out an education license with Zoom which is an annual fee,” said Ragoonath,” But it’s not exorbitant in the bigger scheme of things, right? But it’s a lot less than paying rent for building. Online is a lot cheaper than it is in the physical space,” he said.