How AUC is adapting to education under covid-19: With the covid-19 pandemic forcing universities across the world to make a sudden shift to online learning, we wanted to understand more about how the American University in Cairo (AUC) has been coping with the situation. We spoke with AUC President Francis Ricciardone and Provost Ehab Abdel Rahman, who told us that the government’s measures to contain the spread of covid-19 are accelerating long-term trends towards distance learning and the more efficient use of resources. We also delved into other plans for the university, including issues including tuition fees and accessibility. Edited excerpts from our discussion:
Remote instruction was an emergency move to cope with covid-19. As covid-19 numbers rose, AUC held intensive general training for some 800 faculty members on how to hold online classes — a process made easier by the university’s 15 years of investment in its Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT), which is constantly developing new learning methodologies, Abdel Rahman tells us. Even with systems in place, the rapid shift to online instruction wasn’t easy. AUC leadership moved spring break from the third week of April to mid-March to use the week for preparation, says Ricciardone, which was a controversial decision but proved to be necessary.
Now it’s spurring the shift to long-term online teaching. Having been forced into remotely instructing students, the university is looking to institute a longer-term, more comprehensive system for online teaching as of the summer term, says Abdel Rahman. This move should increase student engagement, Abdel Rahman says, telling us that this is what differentiates remote instruction from online learning. A positive byproduct of the rapid shift online is that it has demonstrated the value of blended learning, which should help to reduce any resistance to the shift, he adds.
With proctored classroom exams a no-go, instructors have resorted to take-home exams and other assessment tools. These include oral assessments, written essays, or research papers, says Abdel Rahman. Special software for proctored exams has also been made available for subjects such as science and engineering, where AI tracks students’ eye movements, scans the rooms they are sitting in, and monitors their computer screens. This technology remains in limited use though, with take-home exams currently the most widely-used assessment tool, Abdel Rahman says.
The university is now also overhauling policies that are no longer fit for purpose. Many policies designed for face-to-face instruction are not applicable to online study, requiring the university to rethink how it approaches everything from classroom attendance to regulations to protect confidentiality in exams, says Ricciardone. An example of this is the implementation of an optional credit/fail grading policy, where students were able to switch their final grade to credit for certain courses during the spring semester.
The financial impact of the pandemic may be heavy — but the university is taking the chance to streamline: Although the disruptions caused by the virus are having — as Ricciardone tell us — “huge budget impacts,” AUC’s leadership wants to use this to drive reforms that are already underway such as reducing cash transactions on campus. Special committees have been set up to look at how to allocate resources more efficiently and secure new sources of funding. Digital innovation will play a role, but the idea is not simply to digitize paper-based processes, but to use digital tools to deliver services in a better and cheaper way, says Ricciardone.
AUC hasn’t refunded or reduced tuition fees for this academic year, Abdel Rahman says, because while there have been a small number of requests for refunds, AUC’s costs haven’t really decreased. Its current policy involves refunding specific fees that go to specific services not being used, such as for the dormitories that students couldn’t stay in for the last half of term, or bus fees.
Tuition hikes announced in February will still be implemented, but the university won’t put fees higher than that this year. The tuition rate for undergraduate Egyptian students for 2020-2021 was set at USD 647 per credit hour, according to the AUC website. This is up from USD 583 per credit hour in 2019-2020. The aim is to keep prices down without compromising on quality, says Ricciardone. In USD terms, tuition has been relatively flat for 10 years, he says, maintaining that the 2020-2021 rate is about the same in USD terms as what was charged in 2013. But the rate in EGP terms has skyrocketed over the past decade because of depreciation and the EGP float in 2016. AUC’s Egyptian students can pay tuition and fees in EGP, while international students must pay in USD.
The university already incurs large costs and subsidizes all students up to a point. 45% of AUC students receive some sort of financial assistance from the university, ranging from a 10-15% reduction in tuition fees to an almost 100% reduction, depending on the student’s circumstances, says Abdel Rahman. Meanwhile, it costs about USD 28k every year to educate a student, while the university will charge each student in the incoming Fall class maximum fees of USD 19.4k per year, says Ricciardone, so even students who pay full tuition fees are still getting a c.30% subsidy. The USD 9k per student gap is bridged from the university’s endowment fund, which is invested, and which will have to be used more in the coming year to cover expenses, he adds. “We are not-for-profit,” says Ricciardone. “We are seriously unprofitable if you measure profit by USD coming in versus what it costs to educate students.”
AUC committed to increasing financial aid in November 2016, to ensure greater accessibility. AUC doesn’t want to lose any student in good academic standing because of an inability to meet tuition charges, says Ricciardone. This came after protests by the student union, which took place after the devaluation. “We’ve stood by this commitment, although it gave us a USD 6 mn deficit for the last half of that fiscal year and into the next year,” he says. As part of its commitment to inclusivity, AUC recently signed an amendment to a 1975 MoU with the government, allowing it to grant 30 scholarships to students from Egypt’s public schools nominated by the Egyptian educational apparatus, Ricciardone tells us. This is in addition to a recent grant cooperative agreement with USAID, the US embassy and seven partner universities that will bring 700 Egyptian students from underprivileged areas all over the country to study in these universities in five cohorts over 10 years. The initiative was funded by USD 35 mn from USAID and USD 5.5 mn from AUC, he adds. The students selected must fulfil particular criteria, with an overall 50-50 male-female ratio, and at least 15% being disabled or having special educational needs.
Long-term, AUC has been trying to leverage its value proposition to bring more international students back to Egypt. Covid-19 threatens these efforts. Attracting international students has been a strategic priority for AUC since numbers fell dramatically between 2011 and 2015. The university caters particularly to foreign students who can come to Egypt to study a range of contemporary issues and problems in the developing world, says Ricciardone. They were making headway bringing those students back, he adds, but the pandemic will make this more difficult, with one of its major effects being the drop in enrollment of international students. This impacts both AUC’s revenue and — one can infer — the diversity of the experience it can offer.
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