How universities can help during an economic downturn

Against estimates that COVID-19 containment measures will result in an immediate decline in African GDP growth from 3.2% to 1.8% in 2020 – with further adverse impacts if the pandemic is not contained – universities are being challenged to consider their roles in mitigating socio-economic impacts.

According to Dr Martyn Davies, Deloitte managing director of emerging markets and Africa, and dean of the Deloitte Alchemy School of Management in South Africa, what is needed at this point is a “far greater” contribution from (traditional) universities into research and development which feeds directly into private sector activity.

"Undoubtedly, new thinking and above all implementation is required from universities, with support from the state and often international multilateral agencies, as the future of African countries is dependent on the quality of its research and higher education institutions,” he said.


“… Universities themselves need to innovate and become more proactive in responding to the immediate needs of the marketplace as renewed growth should not rely on commodity price upswings but rather come from innovation,” Davies told University World News. “This not only applies to research but also to the calibre and skillset of their graduates.”

Davies said in many cases universities might have to “structurally reform” in order to weather the turbulence caused by the pandemic.

Ahmed Atia, head of advisory and research at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli in Libya, said African universities should regard it as their mission to get involved in helping the business community to reduce financial disruptions and socio-economic damage caused by the current pandemic.

He suggested that university-business incubators be established within African universities to support small- and medium-sized enterprises and impart useful skills among jobless people as well as providing consultancy services.

Mark Duerksen, research associate at the United States-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, argued that many of the continent's universities have already been utilising their resources and expertise to assist public health and social responses during the COVID-19 shutdowns, but such activities could be expanded.

"Urban planning, public health, and policy professors have contributed to response plans that take into account the needs of vulnerable populations such as those who live in urban informal settlements," Duerksen said.

"If capacities permit, African universities should look to expand these initiatives, and African governments should look to support and integrate higher education institutions into their strategic recovery plans – which, to be successful, will require utilising all of the continent’s talents and resources creatively."

Doing more with less

Amal Mowafy, regional youth employment technical specialist for Africa at the International Labour Organization (ILO), told University World News that despite the poor growth outlook, universities in Africa have to “remain fit for purpose” by adopting a “top-down frugal innovation mindset or business model (doing more with less while adopting home-grown solutions) to serve the fast-forwarded future of work”.

She said the future had “become more horizontal rather than vertical” and would rest on the pillars of talent, ways of working and data-technology.

Mowafy said higher education institutions needed to re-imagine the delivery of knowledge through online learning to allow students to enter the new work mode. They would also need to focus their research agendas on serving evolving needs during the pandemic and post-pandemic periods, as well as serve as safe havens for fledgling entrepreneurial activities.

"In the process, it is vital to listen to the voices of young people about their needs and concerns while being guided by the aspirations of Agenda 2063 which seeks to have 70% of tertiary education graduates in STEM subjects."

Policy formulation

Emphasising the role of universities in influencing policy, Professor David Evans, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said: “In many societies, universities are the main centres of research, and crafting effective responses to COVID-19 – including to its economic implications – requires us to draw on all we have learned from the past and on careful analysis of the implications of policy choices in the present.

“For example, historians can document how people handled previous crises and how the government responded; economists and sociologists can explore the likely intended and unintended consequences of policies to provide support to employment-generating businesses and to the most vulnerable members of society in this time of crisis; and political scientists can help us to understand how effective government responses were crafted in the past and what those imply for the current crisis.

"Schools of education can help policy-makers to understand the most effective ways to deliver distance education while schools are closed."

"The questions that we need answers to right now in terms of our responses to the disease and its health and economic impacts are nearly limitless, and those answers will vary from country to country … Researchers at universities in affected countries may have contextual knowledge – combined with their research experience – that an outsider may lack."

Social mobility

For Lee Elliot Major, the United Kindom’s first professor of social mobility currently based at the University of Exeter, the power of universities lies in their ability to play a role in “levelling up opportunities” among different social groups.

"African universities can’t obviously solve the profound socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on their own, but I do think they can work with governments and businesses to help address the crisis through evidence-informed policy and practice and to help retrain and rehabilitate people as we recover," he said.

"In these hard times, we must ensure that education plays its part in levelling up opportunities," Major told University World News.

"The long-term reverberations of the coronavirus crisis will likely exacerbate the divide in life chances between the poor and privileged across the world, including African countries … Unless universities can help to tackle these inequalities, we face an age of declining opportunities."