Universities look to partnerships to boost ICT capacity

African universities had been ‘caught unawares’ by the shutdowns and the subsequent shift to online learning necessitated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, international, regional and national partnerships are perceived as one of the ways in which these institutions can fast-track their ICT infrastructure and capacity in an altered higher education landscape.

During the second of a six-part dialogue series hosted on 13 May by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP), a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and Michigan State University in the United States, Professor George Kanyama-Phiri, vice-chancellor of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi, said he believed partnerships and collaborations could help his university to improve its ICT capacity, particularly the development of regulatory frameworks to ensure quality online teaching and learning.

He told participants in the webinar on “Global and Continental Partnerships and Collaboration in Higher Education Post COVID-19” that while the AAP had indicated that it would assist in building capacity among faculty to deliver online teaching and assessment, he hoped there would also be an opportunity to work with the AAP towards the development of common online modules.

Moderated by Professor Paul Zeleza, vice-chancellor of the US International University-Africa based in Kenya, the webinar set out to explore the kind of partnerships that are emerging as a result of COVID-19, and how the pandemic might affect what Zeleza described as the “perennial struggle to balance the demands of internationalisation and indigenisation”.

Kanyama-Phiri said the pandemic had exposed need to deepen triangular cooperation in terms of South to South and North-South partnerships as well as public-private partnerships.

The small public university, like many others in Africa, is challenged by a number of issues militating against its ability to switch to online learning easily: its students lack universal access to laptops and internet data; furthermore, the campus itself suffers from frequent disruptions to its electricity supply; and students, most of whom have been sent home to rural areas, have limited access to the internet and do not enjoy environments conducive to learning.

“We have been affected by the pandemic in the sense that we were caught unawares without functional ICT infrastructure; our students … not all of them have laptops,” he said.

Policy and regulatory frameworks

He said that besides infrastructural challenges, university policy and regulations were not geared for fulltime online teaching and learning. And the university faces tough financial conditions.

“Let me hasten to add, by virtue of the fact that students have gone home, it means our source of revenues which comes from fees has also been drastically affected and we are really operating from a very limited budget,” he said.

“In terms of opportunities for collaboration, we would like to improve our ICT, as is the case with other African countries, specifically to build capacity and develop regulatory frameworks to ensure quality of online learning.”

He said he believed that the inclusion of post-COVID-19 online instruction for generic programmes would improve access to higher education in Malawi in general. “The AAP universities could offer common online modules and other modules could be offered on campus,” he said.

While the need for collaboration had become more pressing in the context of the pandemic, in some cases joint academic programmes were heavily dependent on travel, which is now impossible.

He said five students from Malawi who were supposed to enrol at MSU and three postdoctoral students who were due to visit Stellenbosch University were now unable to do so. He said this has precipitated an urgent need to devise a “means of communicating virtually – with which our colleagues at MSU are capable of assisting. Most training needs to take place in Africa with improvement in communication.”

“International cooperation is likely to be online in the next year or two; but there is a need for deeper and more equitable partnerships that benefit African institutional interests,” he said. “Intra-regional collaboration will be more important – in the short term we envisage a move towards co-creation of curricula among southern and northern institutions in response to COVID, and in longer term, more collaborative models that use northern expertise while situating education in the African context.”

He said a focus in joint research would be the search for cures for COVID-19 and the efficiency of food systems in the context of the pandemic.

Because the impact of COVID-19 transcended the health sector, all university faculties had a role to play.

No ‘business as usual’

“The effects and implications of COVID-19 are evolving fast in the country as is the case on the continent and the world, and universities cannot afford to do business as usual, at a pre-COVID-19 pace. We have to face reality. There is a need to fast-track processes, capturing data and providing feedback. I must emphasise that we need research that can produce results and outputs,” he said.

He said the university envisaged partnering with development partners and government in capturing data for informed decision-making. It was also reaching out to government to assist by participating in COVID-19 response teams and had offered its Bunda College of Agriculture as a facility for COVID-19 PCR testing.

Like LUANAR, with the onset of the shutdown of campuses in Mali, the University Arts and Human Sciences of Bamako found itself limited in its response by long-standing infrastructural challenges such as poor connectivity, high internet costs, lack of ICT materials and frequent power disruptions. The university also suffered a lack of human and financial resources, according to its vice-chancellor, Professor Idrissa Traore.

In its bid to “leave no student behind” in terms of access to electronic communication, the university has been trying to establish digital platforms, negotiate the cost of internet and IT materials. It has also imposed social distancing measures and the mandatory use of masks, said Traore.

Like his Malawian counterpart, Traore indicated that among other areas of focus, future local and international partnerships would be geared towards enhancing institutional ICT capacity. Other priorities included English language training for the university community, diversification of funding sources, construction of news infrastructure and value-added research.

Common challenges

Professor Charles Igwe, vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, told the webinar that COVID-19 poses “some common challenges” to African universities, especially with regard to managing populations and improving technology.

“[The challenges] require funding and strategic thinking. Some universities may be better equipped to deal with these challenges within the continent. However, the challenges of availability and affordability of requisite technology, for example, data access and affordability are common to all African universities,” he said.

He said challenges included the availability of facilities and infrastructure for distance learning, the provision of data access and affordability, migration of more courses to distance, e-learning platforms, training of staff in new ICT skills, and providing psychosocial support to staff and students.

Igwe said his university, the first indigenous university in Nigeria, established in 1960, had entered into over 100 national, continental and global partnerships and collaborations. Institutional collaborations offered opportunities for joint research and grant applications, and student exchanges, as well as sharing of curriculum resources and experiences, he said.

“We also have lots of partnerships with the private sector, including telecommunication companies and banks. Some offer us services at special rates.”

Igwe said as far as post-pandemic partnerships were concerned, his university intended to renew existing partnerships and seek new ones, including South-South partnerships and particularly those that could help to address challenges presented by COVID-19.

During discussion, he said he was hopeful of South-South cooperation on issues such as bandwidth sharing and making ICT more affordable to staff and students. In this way, universities could plan for a future characterised by blended learning as opposed to only traditional contact teaching.