COVID-19 will leave no sector in any country in the world unaffected, and its consequences will be felt for years to come.
At a time when huge efforts were being deployed to transform and improve higher education in Africa, there is a danger that COVID-19 will destabilise the sector, with serious consequences.
In this article some of these consequences are highlighted to enable leaders of higher education institutions, policy-makers and other stakeholders to reflect on them and to be better prepared to address them.
African countries had no choice but to close their higher education institutions as part of their lockdown measures to contain the spread of the virus. And higher education institutions had no option but to have recourse to the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to deliver their programmes online at a distance to their enrolled students.
But the process has laid bare the digital divide within the African continent: between those countries that have better ICT infrastructure than others; between higher education institutions within the same country, with some being far better equipped and experienced than others; and between students within the same institution – the rich who live in urban areas and the poor in rural areas who can barely afford to access the internet, when and if it is available.
It is true that the crisis has provided an opportunity to all higher education institutions to quickly improve and maximise their ICT operations. However, the majority of them do not have the capacity to fully deliver whole programmes online.
It is the few open universities in Africa that have that capacity, but their targets are mostly mature students, those in employment and those wishing to upgrade their qualifications, not fresh school-leavers.
While a significant number of African higher education institutions have been implementing blended learning (a mixture of face-to-face and online learning) in order to increase access and improve learning, hardly any had intentions for their face-to-face delivery to be completely replaced.
How then can African countries and higher education institutions deal with the inequities arising from the wide use of online learning, even for a relatively short period?
It is a fallacy to believe that online learning can be effective by merely posting a lecturer’s notes online or having a video recording of the lecture. Yet, this is what is generally happening at present.
Experience has shown that quality online learning requires that the teaching material is prepared by a professional instructional designer, that the lecturer is pedagogically trained for delivering the programme and the students are equally exposed to the pedagogy of online learning.
The unprepared online delivery will have an impact on the quality of the programmes. This is unfortunate at a time when significant achievements have been made in improving the quality of teaching and learning in African higher education institutions.
The worst affected programmes will be science and technology as students will be unable to access laboratories for their practicals. Yet, science and technology programmes are the ones that are most important for Africa’s development.
How can higher education institutions find alternative approaches to using laboratories and, subsequently, how can they mitigate the consequences of poor-quality programmes as a result of unplanned online delivery?
Secondary schools which feed students to higher education institutions have also been closed. Already, it had been observed in many African countries that with the high increase in enrolment in secondary schools, resulting from measures taken to improve access, the quality of students entering higher education institutions had deteriorated.
The situation will be aggravated with the closure of schools, and higher education institutions will have to devise measures to cater for a poorer quality of student intake, perhaps by running remedial courses in the first year.
Also, end-of-secondary school examinations are being postponed or cancelled. What approaches should higher education institutions adopt in selecting their next cohort of students if examination results are not available? Here, a national approach covering the whole education sector needs to be adopted.
In order to improve the research output from Africa – which is known to be the lowest of any region – a plethora of initiatives and projects have been initiated over the past couple of decades, whether at national, regional or continental level.
The emphasis has been on increasing postgraduate training, especially at doctoral level, and facilitating research projects in higher education institutions with an emphasis on areas which are of priority to the development of Africa. And all indicators show that the initiatives are now bearing fruit.
However, the bulk of the research initiatives are funded by European countries and by agencies and foundations in the United States, and lately by China. In Africa, there are very few national agencies funding research and hardly any regional or continental ones. Also, almost all the research is undertaken in collaboration with higher education institutions in these foreign countries.
As COVID-19 is impacting the whole world, and Europe, the US and China appear to be the hardest hit, can Africa continue to rely on research funding from these sources? Several of these countries will probably end up in recession and their higher education institutions will understandably give priority to redressing their own situation rather than supporting international research collaboration.
How then will research projects already initiated in Africa and funded externally be maintained? To what alternative sources of funding can African higher education institutions turn to undertake their research?
Almost every African country has lately been experiencing the challenge of graduate unemployment, and in some countries the unemployment figures are alarming. From feedback obtained from employers, a major cause of the unemployment is the lack of ‘soft skills’ in graduates – poor communication skills, lack of personal initiative, inability to work in a team, etc.
The wide use of online learning because of COVID-19 will undoubtedly exacerbate the situation as students will be working on their own. Here is an opportunity to actively involve employers to assist in providing the skills they need.
Unfortunately, for economic reasons, many potential private employers of graduates may be forced to lay off their staff, thus increasing unemployment. This will make it even harder for graduates to find employment. The social and political consequences of large-scale unemployment, especially among the educated youth, can be serious.
Private higher education institutions
A characteristic of the higher education sector in African countries is the presence of private institutions. The number of institutions is already significantly greater than public ones, and private student enrolment has steadily increased over the years, with some countries now having almost equal student enrolment in public and private institutions.
These private institutions usually operate along a business model and are heavily dependent on students’ fees to cover staff salaries and operational costs. While public institutions may eventually receive assistance from the state to overcome the consequences of COVID-19, the private ones may be forced to stop their operations for lack of funds. Closure of these institutions would have a dramatic impact on the higher education sector and countries’ economic development.
What are the possible solutions? How can the state assist the private institutions at such a time of crisis?
Understandably, at present African countries, as elsewhere in the world, are prioritising the health sector to minimise contagion and limit deaths. They are also trying to assist the socially-disadvantaged of their population.
Economic recovery and support to other sectors of the economy will have to come later. But it is vital for each sector to start reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 and assessing its possible consequences, otherwise recovery of the sector may be too slow, too late.
This applies to the higher education sector as well. The approach must be holistic and involve all stakeholders, including the private sector. Each country should set up a task force on higher education under the leadership of the relevant ministry to survey the situation, suggest immediate and short-term measures and be ready to effect redress when the crisis is over.
Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is a former member of the governing council of the United Nations University and is a board member of University World News – Africa.