Bridging Higher Education Gaps in COVID-19 times: The Cases of China and the EU



September 2020 marked the beginning of classes for millions of students across the world. However, this year’s back-to-school season has been a very special one. According to UNESCO, more than 772 million students across 185 countries – 44.1% of total enrolled learners – were affected by the closure of schools and higher education institutions (HEIs) in September 2020. Since the WHO Director General’s announcement of a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, governments have put in place lockdowns, travel restrictions and other sanitary measures reducing or banning internal and international mobility. Consequently, the higher education sector has been severely affected, especially universities constituted by a high number of foreign students.

Faced with this uncommon situation, as well as the closure of campuses, online education became invaluable in assuring the continuity of teaching and learning. For the past decade, with the gradual reliance on technology in universities and the abundance of online resources, COVID-19 has accelerated the already-existing transition from analog to digital education. For example, this fall some universities proposed a dual campus experience. That is, offering students the choice to attend classes online or on campus, in an unprecedented move to ensure the continuity of education.


China’s education response to COVID-19

As the first country struck by the virus, China has been at the forefront of adapting its education system to an online format. In April 2018, foreseeing the potential of smart technologies, the Chinese government issued a specific action plan on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for higher education. At the National Education Conference in September 2018, President Xi Jinping announced the “2035 Plan” which aimed at reforming and adapting the Chinese education system to the age of digitalization. The plan suggested the building of intelligent campuses and encouraged the incorporation of big data and AI into educational services.

When the coronavirus outbreak surged in China in late January 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) launched an initiative to “ensure learning is undisrupted when classes are disrupted”, marking a significant shift in transitioning from traditional face-to-face education to an e-learning model. The rapid reaction of the government showed its effects. By 2 February 2020, 22 online education platforms were mobilized uploading 24,000 courses, reassuring the continuity of studies for 38 million home-based higher education students.


The EU’s education response to COVID-19

On the other side of the globe, Europe has also been badly hit by the pandemic. European HEIs faced similar challenges to assure a smooth transition to e-learning. Despite education policy being accountable to national entities, the EU provided incentives to design supportive actions for national entities in the Member States to address common opportunities and threats, ensuring the strengthening of cooperation and dialogue in higher education. 

Created in 2018 and updated in September 2020, the new Digital Education Action Plan offers guidance to EU member states on creating an inclusive and high-quality digital education in Europe. Furthermore, under the framework of “Education and Training 2020” (ET 2020), multilateral cooperation in higher education is encouraged. Two Erasmus+ calls for proposals of €100 million each, were launched on 25 August 2020 to support digital education readiness and creative skills. Last but not least, a pan-European program – Impact EdTech has been funded by the EU in April 2020. The aim is to financially support EdTech start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that address digital education challenges such as inclusive education for socially disadvantaged people, personalized learning based on AI, and support for teachers during remote schooling. Compared to the majority of the market share dominated by American and Chinese educational technology (EduTech) companies, European enterprises still lag behind in the development of AI and online platforms. Hence the necessity for the EU to raise common funds and concrete strategies to boost European tech companies in the field of digital education. 


Increased inequality of educational resources

Even though some directives ensuring the quality and efficiency of online education have been taken up, both the EU and China are confronted with a drastic increase in educational inequalities since the pandemic. A prolonged closure of physical schools results in more learning at home and a higher dependency on the student’s socio-economic background. Consequently, it highlights the relevance of the “Matthew effect”, a theory which explains the widening gap between privileged and lower income students. It applies to cumulative advantage of economic capital, where students in wealthier families tend to do better whereas students in poorer ones have difficulties following schooling.

The implementation of three measures is seen to be beneficial in reducing educational inequalities. First, professors should assess grades when school restarts physically and re-evaluate students’ grades during confinement because students will by then have the same learning materials again. Second, more adapted forms of learning appliances shall be provided to disadvantaged students based on their needs. For instance, in March 2020, a Belgian non-profit organization,, was mobilized to collect 10,000 laptops for students lacking digital support. Third, more funding ought to be set up in the construction of internet facilities and electrical devices. Within EU countries, it has been reported that inequalities in internet access were present in some rural areas in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Portugal, where students in HEIs were unable to access their online courses.


EU-China Cooperation in Virtual Higher Education

Besides educational inequalities engendered by the pandemic, EU and Chinese universities both face challenges in keeping their exchange programs active. Indeed, studying abroad constitutes a crucial part of the curriculum for higher education students. The cultural, linguistic and self-improvement aspects of an exchange program can by no means be replaced by virtual classes, as explained by the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, which issued a statement emphasizing the importance of physical mobility. However, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and in view of the new EU budget (Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027), it will be beneficial to develop and invest in virtual Erasmus+ mobility and further transition to online education formats. 

Due to international mobility constraints, and by taking up a tech-based approach, various opportunities are presented to China and the EU to ramp up their cooperation. To begin with, the creation of partnerships in virtual joint educational programs would set the groundwork for the engagement of mutual understanding by building ties amongst younger generations. Thanks to the flexibility of online delivery, students will be in a position to complete their credits and receive dual degrees, accredited by both their home university and a foreign HEI. The success of  Coursera, a world-wide online learning platform offering classes on diverse subjects from leading universities, has proved the possibility to ensure high-quality cross-country learning while showing the popularity of digital education. Moreover, the incorporation of EU and Chinese languages in both education systems would prepare students for their physical exchange in a safe and post-Covid situation. Lastly, the enhancement of dialogues on education policy is vital, notably in the context of the coronavirus pandemic where the backlash of globalization, the rise of nationalism, and the hostility in the US-China trade war, have clearly shown the deterioration and decoupling of international cooperation. At the two EU-China virtual summits this year, the field of education, which used to be major in their communication was by no means mentioned. Thus there is an urgency to consolidate mutual trust and intercultural understanding between European and Chinese people at the 5th EU-China High-level People-to-people Policy Dialogue (HPPD) scheduled virtually in November 2020. 

In conclusion, both throughout the pandemic, and during its aftermath, online education is imperative for governments to ensure the continuity of studies for higher education students, even though it cannot fully replicate the in-person study experience. The EU should allocate funds to tech companies in the development of online platforms while securing the right of equal access to internet and online educational resources. Despite COVID-19’s impact on student mobility, the EU and China should promote incentives to create virtual shared education programs. In the grand scheme of things, EU-China cooperation in virtual higher education would be favorable to transnational connectivity and education, co-prosperity and serve as a bridge to reconnect the world in the long run.


Author: Kemeng Liu, Junior Researcher EIAS

Photo Credits: European Commission