Some HEIs adapted with minimal chaos simply by fast-tracking plans already in the pipeline or consolidating their switch to digital and online learning. This amounts to a few in SSA, especially those in South Africa, Kenya and some private institutions in other countries. However, 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.
Africa’s digital revolution
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 and Facebook 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 are improving 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?
Crises offer opportunities to reform
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.
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.
Need to internationalise
The pandemic exposes students, teachers and universities and their curriculum to multiculturalism and the need to internationalise. 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.