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COVID-19 & Africa: Analogue Higher Education, digital generation

Making sense of the impact on society
Olawale Ismail

Lecturer in Leadership, Peace & Development Education, African Leadership Centre

05 June 2020

COVID-19 is a game-changer for higher education globally. In Sub-Saharan Africa it has catapulted some institutions forward 30 years, while others are not adapting so easily – despite being in the midst of a digital revolution. 'Wale Ismail, of the African Leadership Centre, looks at what this tells us about the future of higher education and the need for all institutions to embrace internationalisation and flexible learning.

In February 2020, on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, a round-table event at King’s explored how Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and its higher education might look by 2050 and what factors could shape higher education in Africa in years to come.

The discussions, involving King’s academics and its PluS Alliance partners from some public universities in SSA, focused on demography and technology as the two biggest influences . They painted a picture of a futuristic higher education freed from some current trappings around physical spaces, curriculums, bureaucracies and face-to-face teaching.

A month after the roundtable, COVID-19 became a global epidemic, and this speculated ‘future’ so became a reality. Enforced lockdowns across SSA and globally meant major disruptions in higher education, all set against a background of continued upward continental population growth.

Youthening trend

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 seen a boom in tech start-ups and innovation hubs are 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.

Analogue higher education

However, many HEIs have continued to offer an “analogue” higher education, with poor ICT infrastructure, weak 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. Neither are they culturally diverse, nor provide highly flexible learning options, and adaptable curricula.


COVID-19 is a game changer and a game changing moment. It 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.– 'Wale Ismail

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.

Operational barriers

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.

In this story

Olawale  Ismail

Olawale Ismail

Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Peace & Development Education

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