Op-Ed Series – Vol.2 Issue: 6

May 14, 2020


Analogue Education, Digital Generation: Covid-19 and the Future of Higher Education in Africa

‘Wale Ismail*

In Summary

  • COVID-19 is a game-changer and a game-changing moment for higher education in SSA and across the globe.
  • The vast majority, largely public-owned HEIs in SSA, are struggling to adapt to disruptions occasioned by COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 has catapulted Africa into the future by at least 30 years accompanied by a fundamental message and a raft of lessons; higher education and higher education institutions as we know them will never be the same.
  • There is an emerging global higher education market where only HEIs that are competitive, adaptable and with innovative curriculum will thrive.

In February 2020, on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, King’s College London and its PluS Alliance partners, including administrators of selected public universities in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), held a High-Level Roundtable in which the future of higher education in Africa and other developing countries was of interest. The keynote paper explored ‘How Sub-Sahara Africa and its higher education might look by 2050? and What factors could shape higher education in Africa in years to come? The speaker emphasized demography and technology as the two biggest influences on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next 30 years. The paper painted a picture of a futuristic higher education without much of its current trappings such as expansive buildings and classrooms, face-to-face interactions between teachers and students, rigid curriculum, and heavy bureaucracies. Participants were challenged to re-imagine higher education in several ways; ways that transform classrooms and learning into a virtual reality, those that fundamentally change the notions of what and where a university is, that radically alter traditional lecturer-student relations and, most importantly, usher in new forms of skills and facilities that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) will need to take up.

The confluence of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic to SSA with continued upward continental population growth accompanied by deeper technological penetration, demands serious attention for higher education institutions. With forecasts of a 4.7 fertility rate and an annual growth rate of  2.4% many SSA countries are expected to double in size by 2050. The region alone will account for 52% of the anticipated additions (2 billion) to the global population by 2050. In fact, SSA is projected to increase from 1.06 billion in 2019 to 2.1 billion by 2050 and triple to 3.78 billion by 2100. This continuing ‘youthening’ trend will radically reshape higher education in terms of access, pedagogy, and funding needs. Simultaneously, Africa is at the start of its tech-revolution. Over the past decade, the region has witnessed and continued to experience a boom in tech start-ups and innovation hubs estimated to have grown by over 50% per year on average; their growth continues to transform society at large. This evolving tech ecosystem will continue to empower Africa's markets, people, and potential in meaningful ways with inescapable implications for higher education.

HEIs offering analogue higher education are easily known by their poor ICT infrastructure, poor web presence, inflexible and sometimes stale curriculum, bloated bureaucracy, and zero-adaptive capacities to respond to disruptions to traditional delivery of higher education. They do not proffer smart innovative options that actively leverage technology to enhance learning and students’ experiences and neither are they culturally diverse nor provide highly flexible learning options, and adaptable curricula. Instructively, a month after the PluS Alliance Roundtable, COVID-19 became a global epidemic, and the ‘future’ so described or speculated about became a reality. Enforced lockdowns across SSA and globally meant major disruptions in higher education. COVID-19 is a game-changer and a game-changing moment for higher education in SSA and across the globe.

COVID-19 represents a moment of ‘truth’ and ‘truth-telling’ for the quality and future of higher education in SSA. At the minimum, it has outed and separated analogue from smart HEIs in SSA and across the world. Admittedly, COVID-19 forced HEIs across the globe to quickly adjust and adapt their programmes and this is expected to continue for a long time to come. Still, some HEIs adapted with minimal chaos simply by fast-tracking plans already in the pipeline or consolidated their switch to digital and online learning, thus activating their digital preparedness. This appears to be the case with very few HEIs in SSA, especially those in South Africa, Kenya and a few private HEIs in other countries. The vast majority, largely public-owned HEIs in SSA, are struggling to adapt to disruptions occasioned by COVID-19. From Kenya to Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe (just to mention a few) the stories are similar. It is simply motion without movement. Issues of staff training, ICT infrastructure, student access, electricity, etc. are important operational barriers to the emergency switch to online learning being attempted - and without much success - by HEIs in most SSA countries. Worse still, virtual offering and delivery of higher education has important pedagogical and ethical implications that require proper planning, investment, and time. The underlying analogue nature of higher education services is a key factor. All this raises serious questions as to the readiness and even survivability of HEIs in SSA in view of the current realities and needs of higher education.

Paradoxically, as HEIs in SSA struggle with adapting to virtual learning, the region is reaping the reward of a predominantly youth population, the so-called ‘Gen Z’. Youth are driving Africa’s digital revolution. Africa is the fastest growing continent for developers globally and major tech giants and software firms such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc. have increased their presence and investment in Africa; for instance, Microsoft has announced a $100 million investment on development centres that will employ 500 Africans by 2023. In addition, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital has flowed from the West into such countries as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa. Africa is breeding a generation of innovators whose homegrown ideas could and already improve the lives of citizens and society at large. This raises a befuddling question; why and how then are HEIs in SSA struggling when the region is witnessing a digital revolution?

Nonetheless, a critical re-interpretation of COVID-19 offers opportunities as well. Renowned economist Milton Friedman in his 1982 book Capitalism and Freedom, noted that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Inherent in crises are opportunities for reforms and transformations, for genuine conversations, for rethinking ideas and approaches, and for overhauling systems and processes to reflect new priorities. This is also possible with COVID-19 in relation to higher education in Africa. As mentioned in last week’s op-ed on COVID-19 and inequalities in primary and secondary education in Africa (Kenya), COVID-19 presents a window for states in SSA to reappraise the role of education in their national development and regional integration processes. Countries in SSA must critically reflect on key questions; what kind of education system responds to the needs of the current and future students? Should education be a national development priority? Should education transcend literacy to include and serve a nation-building project? What is the role of higher education in envisioning a new Africa and nurturing a change-oriented citizenry? What is required to transform the quality of learning in HEIs in SSA? If the answers to these questions are found and effectively implemented, countries in SSA will have a higher education system which is inclusive and capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.

COVID-19 has catapulted Africa into the future by at least 30 years accompanied by a fundamental message and a raft of lessons; higher education and higher education institutions as we know them will never be the same. For a start, COVID-19 has accelerated globalisation processes in higher education; it has triggered a race to improve teaching methods, access and flexibility using technology. The pandemic exposes students, teachers and universities and their curriculum to multiculturalism and the need to internationalize. Crucially, higher education learning is now a virtual process; HEIs will be required to de-territorialize and even de-nationalize; faculty and student interactions will largely rely on virtual exchanges; and platforms where higher education is delivered are as critical as the content. Flexible learning programs are indisputably the new norm increasing the need for cross-country and cross-region collaboration and partnerships among HEIs.  There is an emerging global higher education market where only HEIs that are competitive, adaptable and with innovative curriculum will thrive. Most importantly, it is a ‘MUST’ that HEIs in Africa actively use and collaborate with the army of tech innovators across the region.

*’Wale Ismail is a Lecturer in Leadership, Peace & Development Education at King’s College London.

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