COVID-19: a defining moment for our education systems?

By the end of March 2020 more than 87 percent of the world’s students had been impacted by closure of their schools and universities, as over 160 countries implemented nationwide shutdowns of their educational institutions.1 With yet more countries considering the same decision, it’s possible that millions of additional learners could be affected in weeks ahead.

The indefinite nature of the shutdown means that parents the world over are grappling with simultaneously working from home and supervising their children’s at-home learning. Meanwhile governments, educators and policymakers are considering the potential long-term impacts of extended disruption to education systems.

Beyond widespread interrupted learning, closing schools is likely to generate a range of knock-on impacts, including rising economic costs as parents reduce work hours to manage childcare, and social isolation for students of all ages who rely on their schools for social interaction.

An educational catastrophe or a positive catalyst for new learning models?

Teaching and learning today are still strongly influenced by institutional structures developed during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The large urban school, college or university, organized by age stratification, learners meeting in groups, and regulated units of time, was well-suited for a newly industrial society that valued factory-based production models.2

Today, as we embrace the fourth industrial revolution, could it be that the COVID-19 pandemic catalyses governments and institutions to substantially re-evaluate our educational systems? And would more up-to-date learning models potentially benefit all educational groups - from K-12s to higher education and even corporate learning?

There has already been good progress in the field. Sam Shah, Global Head of Services in Macquarie Capital, works extensively in the sector and specialises in advising Education Technology companies. He says that the rapid development of education technology over the last ten years has meant that faced with COVID-19, many educational institutions around the world have been able to pivot relatively quickly to online learning models.

“Advancement in the last ten years has focused in two key areas,” says Shah. “A focus on anytime, anywhere, accessible learning programs, particularly in mobile formats. And second, online educational software across an ever-increasing array of subject areas for all learning levels. In the case of the latter, there has also been a high focus on gamification driving at higher overall engagement and retention of students.”

“Advancement in the last ten years has focused in two key areas. A focus on anytime, anywhere, accessible learning programs, particularly in mobile formats. And second, online educational software across an ever-increasing array of subject areas for all learning levels. In the case of the latter, there has also been a high focus on gamification driving at higher overall engagement and retention of students.”

Sam Shah, Global Head of Services in Macquarie Capital

But the pandemic has also highlighted deficiencies that exist in the current systems:

  • Support and physical supervision for students – particularly younger learners who don’t yet have well-developed skills in self-discipline, time management or motivation.
  • Accessibility for those without easy access to good technology: students learning at home do not always have reliable access to required technology or internet bandwidth – especially if multiple people in the same house are also working or learning from home. Socio-economic challenges can be magnified in this context too, creating a dynamic where those with less access to quality technology are therefore less able to access quality education.  
  • Potential social isolation for learners who rely on face-to-face interaction at school or university for social contact. While schools, colleges and app-developers are working hard to find creative ways for students to connect remotely, many will miss the ease of a face-to-face learning environment, particularly those who rely on their school as a primary source of social interaction.
  • Study abroad and international study programs likely to be negatively impacted by reduced travel – and while the world has never been more connected, international experience is core to many advanced learning programs and will be significantly curtailed during the crisis.

While these deficiencies illustrate that we’re not yet ready to pivot permanently away from classroom-based learning, there is already a powerful evolution underway in the way we teach and learn that could be further catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What can we expect from evolving education systems?

By 2025, there will be half a billion more school and university graduates in the world than today, and current models will need to adapt in order to deliver the scale and quality required.3

Shah says that the principles of anytime, anywhere, accessible learning, and ever improving online educational software will continue to be key. We should expect to see more focus on mobile learning and use of artificial intelligence to drive learning outcomes, he says.

We should also expect to see new players in the market. The education sector is currently a $US6 trillion industry with a market capitalization of just $US150 billion, according to global education researcher HolonIQ.4

HolonIQ  pre-COVID-19, forecast that investment in advanced technology in the education sector would rise  seven-fold by 2025. Over the same period, it expects more than 100 education companies to reach a market capitalization greater than $US1 billion. In 2015, there were just 10.

Similarly, Global Education and Training Expenditure is set to reach at least $10 trillion by 2030 as population growth in developing markets fuels a massive expansion and technology drives unprecedented re-skilling and up-skilling in developed economies.

And for K-12 learners in particular, more sustained periods of ‘learn at home’ would require further development of existing classroom-based content capability. For example, work is needed to develop more sophisticated assessment modules and platforms, as well as more advanced tutoring and mentoring applications.

So, could there be a future where students are in the physical classroom only 2 – 3 hours a day with a great deal of learning more personalised and online? “I think that’s an important question,” says Shah, though he concedes that other social systems for children and families would also need to adapt. “Smaller class sizes, more personalized and online learning models could ultimately offer improved student outcomes and better prepare younger students for a working life that will be primarily managed online. As a father of three young children I’d be very supportive of that.”


Sam Shah, Global Head of Services, Macquarie Capital

Sam Shah is Global Head of Services in Macquarie Capital, having joined the organisation in 2016. Sam has significant experience in M&A advisory, capital markets and leveraged financed transactions within the Knowledge and Business Services industries. He joined Macquarie from Credit Suisse, where he held a number of senior leadership including Managing Director and Head of Knowledge Services and Technology. Mr. Shah led franchise coverage at Credit Suisse globally since 2010 and executed on more than 50 transactions including the $350 million IPO of Nord Anglia and the sale of Relias Learning to Bertelsmann.


  1. UNESCO:

  2. Teaching in a Digital Age, Anthony William (Tony) Bates, 2019.

  3. Source: Holon IQ, BMO Capital Markets – The Education Industry 2019.

  4. HolonIQ.

Lessons on remote schooling and working from Hong Kong: Flavia’s story

Flavia’s son participating in an e-learning session.

Flavia’s day begins when she and her family share a sit-down breakfast at the table which has become a communal eating, working and studying space. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 hit Hong Kong early 2020 the family has been studying and working from home.

After breakfast, her children in primary and secondary school start their day by dialling into a virtual classroom with the rest of their class.

This new normal of education-by-distance has required the family to restructure their lives and workdays around digital schoolwork, submitting homework electronically and interacting with learning modules within a virtual environment. For young children, this has also meant learning the art of self-motivation, discipline and not being tempted to scroll the internet when left unattended. 

“There are different challenges during this unusual period but I’m appreciating the time at home as a family. We break for lunch together and it’s nice to connect throughout the day and not to be rushed,” says Flavia. 

“A huge benefit to education-by-distance is that my kids have more time to develop their own interests. They now have time to learn new skills, like how to film content, edit and add sound effects. They’re creating their own YouTube channel. In my opinion, this is what a new education model could look like - proactive learning.”

Becoming accustomed to this new way of living has had its challenges but Flavia cites putting in place a tech-enabled routine as a saviour. Setting up routines like daily work calls, virtual classrooms where the children can connect in a virtual group, YouTube workout videos and Face Timing with friends have aided the family to flourish over the last few months.

“We are looking forward to going back to normal, there’s something about physical interaction that can never be replaced by software. But one thing I will retain is dedicated time for proactive online learning, not just for our kids but also for my husband and I.”

Flavia Lieu is a Senior Manager in Macquarie’s Corporate Affairs team. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two children.