COVID-19 and African universities – AAP dialogue takeaways

I had the privilege of moderating the six-part series on COVID-19 and African universities organised by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP). The series brought together university vice-chancellors or presidents, prominent academics, and leaders from the public and private sectors, philanthropic foundations, and international and intergovernmental agencies.

Each forum focused on a specific topic. The series sought to explore the response of African universities in managing the pandemic for their own institutions and contributing to the mitigation capabilities of their societies.

The six dialogues

Pandemic responses and lessons learned: The first forum was on “Pandemic Responses and Lessons Learned from African Universities”. The panellists discussed the responses of their universities. Some transitioned to emergency online teaching and learning and provided health services in their medical schools.

Several made innovations and produced hygiene products and personal protective equipment such as hand sanitisers, masks, ventilators, EpiTents for patient isolation and mobile hospitals, testing kits, and robots for delivery of food and medicines to patients.

Many undertook research on the epidemiology of the coronavirus and biomedical treatments and the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, provided advisory services to government, developed software to monitor the pandemic’s spread, and sought to raise awareness and provide psychosocial support to their constituents and the wider society.

Partnerships and collaboration: The second forum dwelt on “Global and Continental Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education”. The panellists noted that the pandemic has reinforced the need to deepen North-South, South-South and regional cooperation, as well as paying attention to Africa’s and the world’s most pressing challenges including income inequality, youth employment, climate change, food security and migration.

Also being bolstered is the development of a complex web of global, continental and regional partnerships, multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral teams, and problem-based approaches.

Because of changes in travel and safety, acceleration of the fourth industrial revolution and emergence of innovative education pathways, new inter-institutional partnerships will grow including joint research programmes, sharing of online curricula and ICT facilities, faculty and student digital skills training, and the development of dual degree programmes.

Educational access: The third forum focused on “Educational Access at Higher Education Institutions”. It was noted that the pandemic has forced 1.6 billion children and youth to stay at home and the transition to online delivery has exposed striking digital and financial divides among institutions and students.

Ensuring continuity of teaching and learning entails strengthening the structures, systems and resources to support online leaning, planning for the recovery phase and repurposing education for the future.

This requires developing clear social justice principles of accessibility, inclusivity, flexibility, equitability and connectivity. It is imperative to: provide more student aid and access to digital devices and internet as the future of higher education is hybrid; reorganise learning and residential spaces on campuses to facilitate physical distancing; and provide hygiene products and personal protective equipment. It is crucial that no student or institution is left behind.

Economic, food security and livelihood impacts: The fourth forum dealt with “The economic, food security and livelihood impacts”. COVID-19 has devastated national economies and led to massive unemployment and deteriorating provision of essential services such as health and education.

Disruptions of food production and supply value chains have undermined the availability and access to food and nutrition security for different population groups.

The mitigation measures by universities include undertaking research projects, training programmes and community activities to improve food security and safety, crop diversification, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, youth entrepreneurship, and investment in retail markets.

Also critical is the production of data, modelling and mapping of the spread and impact of the pandemic for more effective public policy responses to build more resilient economic, food and employment systems.

Mental health impacts: The fifth forum discussed “Coping with Mental Health Impacts”. The mental health of students and employees, which was already a serious concern, has been exacerbated by the anxieties and uncertainties engendered by the pandemic.

Universities have responded by strengthening counselling services, providing teletherapy and wellness coaching, establishing resilience courses, programmes and training, raising awareness through outreach, providing information and conducting webinars, and preventing stigma against mental health care.

The wider society has also witnessed worsening mental health as is evident in increased domestic violence, gender-based violence, and certain crimes including cyber-crimes. Universities are trying to make contributions by providing mental health services in conjunction with other providers in society, and by undertaking research on mental health and providing policy interventions.

Partnership and engagement: The final forum examined “Opportunities for Partnership and Engagement”. The session brought panellists from three major foundations, two international financial institutions, and the public and private sectors.

Each shared the initiatives their organisations have developed to assist universities and society to manage the pandemic. The interventions have centred on strengthening institutional capacities, promoting productive partnerships, and providing resources for relief, recovery and resilience.

This includes supporting faculty development and training, research capacity on pressing issues and on higher education, and technological infrastructure and online instruction. Also provided is support for national and regional higher education programmes, student financing and academic diaspora linkages. Further, partnership projects between universities and the private sector and civil society organisations are encouraged.

Some conclusions

Clearly, African universities have demonstrated remarkable commitment and capabilities to respond to COVID-19.

First, many have transitioned to online teaching and learning. Second, they have embarked on much-needed research and are producing innovations. Third, they have strengthened partnerships among each other and with other national, regional and global actors. Fourth, they have contributed to the development of transformative economic and social policies and interventions. Fifth, they have begun to rethink the future of higher education.

Huge challenges of course remain in terms of limited financial, infrastructural, human and research resources. There are also glaring inequalities of access along the differentiations of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, location and other social markers.

But there is hope in so far as African universities have shown that they are capable of managing the worst global health and economic crisis in a century.

Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is vice-chancellor of United States International University-Africa in Kenya and moderator of the AAP Public Dialogue Series.