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Reasons to be optimistic about sub-Saharan higher education after Covid-19

- Himdat Bayusuf, Imed Hammouda, Zeblon Z Vilakazi, Chelsey R Canavan and Wafaie W Fawzi

Tertiary education often carries societal benefits that far outweigh the initial investments necessary to establish a strong and productive system.

Highly skilled workers are needed to address complex challenges in public health, agriculture, climate, technology and engineering, among other fields.

Higher education in sub-Saharan African countries has expanded greatly over the past several decades, but the majority of the population remains unable to access the limited number of higher institutions of learning, with large inequities in access between and within countries.

Between 1970 and 2013, enrolment in tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa increased at a rapid annual rate of 4.3%, compared to the global average of 2.8%. The number of students in these institutions increased from 5.9 million in 2010 to 8.3 million in 2019.

Despite such growth, the gross tertiary enrolment ratio in sub-Saharan Africa was still the lowest in the world in 2018, at 9.4% compared to 38% globally.

The primary challenge to expanding access relates to a lack of opportunity: supply of tertiary education has failed to keep pace with demand. Vast improvements in primary and secondary educational attainment have led to greater numbers of students seeking further educational opportunities.

According to the United Nations Population Division, the number of youth in Africa aged 10-24 years is projected to reach 700 million by 2050, while estimates from the World Bank note that the proportion of youth who have completed at least one cycle of secondary education is projected to increase from 42% in 2012 to 59% in 2030.

Virtual learning opportunities and challenges

The pandemic has only exacerbated poor and inequitable access to higher education. Virtual education was necessary as part of lockdown measures in various countries to curb the spread of the virus.

Yet, a survey among students and researchers conducted by the Mawazo Institute in May 2020 found that only 38.5% of respondents were based at institutions offering e-learning opportunities, with higher rates in East and Southern Africa compared to the West. The same survey found that 72.5% of respondents reported interruptions in research activities.

Universities in Africa have been working on virtual learning prior to COVID-19 in an effort to bring down costs and expand access to education. COVID-19 accelerated that need as institutions were forced to go digital, raising major concerns around equitable access to electricity and technology.

Routine disruptions in power supply, evident even prior to the pandemic, create a multitude of challenges for promoting virtual education. Outages mean that online courses cannot be offered consistently at set times. Furthermore, internet connectivity in most sub-Saharan African settings is slow and unreliable.

UNESCO reports that 89% of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers and 82% lack access to the internet.

To grapple with these challenges during COVID-19, schools have broadcast lessons on radio and television and in some cases instructors have tried to connect with students via text messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. In South Africa, several universities partnered with the telecommunication and logistics sectors to distribute free computers and ensure network access for students at home.

In addition to issues of connectivity, universities were forced to figure out in short order how to create engaging digital content, project- and team-based activities and learning assessments in a virtual environment. Creating effective digital content typically takes several weeks to several months, yet in 2020, some universities were forced to transition to virtual learning in a matter of days.

The transition to digital online education has been a regulatory challenge for many universities. For instance, current regulations in Tunisia forbid online assessment and place limitations on online course delivery.

Inequitable access to higher education and virtual learning for certain students, such as those from low-income and-or rural households and women, is a major challenge in many countries in Africa. Presently, those from wealthier households and those in urban areas have greater access to higher education and earn proportionally higher wages throughout their careers.

And while women make up approximately 43% of sub-Saharan Africa’s tertiary students, the Mawazo Institute’s May 2020 report showed greater disruptions in coursework and research among women due to COVID-19.

Universities with greater resources and with experience in online learning were better equipped when the pandemic hit. At the private South Mediterranean University in Tunisia, the pandemic accelerated processes that were already underway to transition more content to virtual learning platforms.

The African Higher Education Centers of Excellence for Development Impact (ACE Impact), a regional higher education programme covering 40 universities across 11 countries in Africa, facilitated webinars on e-learning and digital resources in the COVID era.

Moving forward, ACE Impact, through the Association of African Universities, will facilitate further learning on the establishment of digital education in African universities.

To ensure virtual learning is effective, greater support is needed for investments in online platforms, faculty training and development of digital content. Strengthening of existing platforms that span countries is also imperative, for example, the African Union’s Pan African Virtual and E-University, which was established in 2019 as the online arm of the Pan African University.

Higher education’s role in the COVID-19 response

Higher education institutions in Africa have played a triple role in the COVID-19 response.

First, they have been actively working to ensure the safety and well-being of school communities. While much emphasis has been placed on virtual learning, the reality for most students in sub-Saharan Africa is that in-person studies remain the only real option for continued learning.

Frequent on-campus COVID-19 testing has been a key strategy enabling colleges and universities across the globe, particularly in the United States and other high-income settings, to remain safely open.

Laboratory capacity is a key barrier to greater testing capacity at many institutions in Africa. Some institutions in the African region have significantly reduced the number of students allowed on campus at one time while also instituting health guidelines such as social distancing, handwashing and quarantine practices. Given their standing in communities, universities have an opportunity to set strong examples for others with their own response strategies.

Second, institutions of higher learning often have large medical centres, with the ability to provide care for severely ill patients. Medical and public health students have also been called upon to assist campuses with mass testing and support communities with contact tracing.

Some engineering colleges have provided important contributions, such as production of personal protective equipment, 3D-printed face shields, hand sanitisers and solar-powered handwashing stations.

Finally, universities have ramped up research, education and advocacy efforts to assist governments in controlling the virus. For example, the Centre of Excellence in Mathematics and Informatics at Gaston Berger University in Senegal built mathematical models to track the spread of the pandemic.

The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, re-purposed its labs to help develop personal protective equipment for health workers, developed statistical modelling programmes to inform decision-making, contributed to vaccine trials and developed a digital app for COVID-19 symptom and exposure screening that was made available to other universities.

Of notable mention is the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, which, in addition to being the first to sequence the COVID-19 virus in Africa, has also developed a new vaccine candidate that has gone through a successful preclinical trial and is now at the human trial stage.

The University of Ghana Health Services and Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research formed a Joint Emergency Response Team to provide education and awareness on preventive measures and diagnosis of COVID-19.

And Makerere University in Uganda developed a dedicated website to provide a trusted source for accurate and timely information about the disease.

The way forward

Greater investments are needed for a higher education sector that can respond to workforce demands, including the type of trained professionals who can respond to outbreaks and prevent future pandemics.

A positive externality of COVID-19 is the potential increased interest among future tertiary students in the sciences. Education reform to expand access should include investments in blended online learning, tuition assistance programmes for in-person and virtual education and programmes to increase gender and ethnic diversity among students, faculty and staff.

Importantly, investments in tertiary education are needed to produce highly skilled graduates today who will be tomorrow’s leaders. Researchers and scientists are in high demand to address Africa’s development challenges, including diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and respiratory infections. The higher education sector in sub-Saharan Africa has demonstrated that it is capable of making large-scale changes in a short period of time with laudable results.

The current transition to virtual learning presents a prime opportunity to intentionally design systems to reduce social inequalities. It is a social justice imperative that higher education systems serve to reduce social inequities, including expanding opportunity to women, low-income and rural populations and minority groups.

As we continue to respond to the urgent needs posed by the pandemic and look toward a post COVID-19 world, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

Himdat Bayusuf is an education global practice specialist for the West and Central Africa Region at the World Bank; Imed Hammouda is from the Mediterranean Institute of Technology, Tunis, Tunisia; Zeblon Z Vilakazi is from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; Chelsey R Canavan is from the department of global health and population, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, USA; and Wafaie W Fawzi is based at the Harvard University Center for African Studies, USA.

This article was first published on University World News.