Universities urged to be flexible in meeting student needs

Universities have been challenged to be more responsive to the diverse needs of students, adapt their teaching methods and sharpen their research focus to contribute to the solving of global problems.

These were some of the themes that emerged during a webinar to celebrate 50 years of collaborative higher education in East Africa. The webinar, titled “Reshaping Higher Education in East Africa: Global trends and reflections from EAC’s Agenda 2050”, was hosted by the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) and held on 23 September 2020.

The webinar was the third in a series commemorating IUCEA’s golden jubilee. The first was held on 7 August under the title “Research and Innovation: An account of 50 years of higher education development in the EAC”. The second was on 28 August and was titled “Higher Education and Community Engagement: Policy and practice in East Africa”.

Keynote speaker, Professor Charles Clarke, a former minister of education in the United Kingdom, said the time had come to change the way in which programmes were offered to students. More flexibility in delivery methods has become critical to suit diverse students’ needs, he said.

“Institutions must allow people to start university education at any stage in life in response to changing needs in society. That’s why flexibility is key. Universities must be prepared to give students the kind of education they want in the manner they want it,” noted Clarke.

This could be done by designing courses that help retrain, update and offer continuous professional development for the work force in partnership with professional bodies, he said. Such courses should also be available in different modes including virtual platforms and via distance learning, he added.

Future challenges

As the world changes, universities too should change their approach to education ensuring that teaching moved from mere lectures, to giving learners life-long lessons. While African universities have contributed to the development of the continent by training high calibre professionals with specialised skills, they still need to do more to prepare the continent to face the future by offering solutions to future challenges.

“Universities no doubt contributed to progress in the past, but they must prove they can do more,” Clarke said.

He asked institutions to help the continent play a significant role in world affairs. This can be done through research to offer the African dimension to global challenges such as pandemics, climate change, economic problems and migration. Currently and for a long time, most of the “thinking has been left to only one part of the world,” he observed. “We all acknowledge that society needs answers to various problems, but we cannot leave them to political leaders alone to solve.”

The challenge of funding

African universities were ready to play their part in knowledge production despite the many difficulties they faced, in particular funding, said Uganda’s Makerere University Vice-Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe.

Following COVID-19 the importance of research has been brought to the fore, with institutions such as Makerere responding to the crisis with numerous research initiatives. At the same time governments have realised the importance of extra funding for high impact research to rival universities in the developed world, he noted.

“While we want to continue doing research to solve issues facing our societies today, it will be hard for many of our universities to compete with those able to spend millions of dollars on basic research,” Nawangwe noted.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need to have strong online learning strategies and to also implement them. Many institutions have had such policies, but they were not actualised prior to the pandemic. “We always had a policy on online learning at Makerere but it was not always implemented. However COVID-19 has made us move fast and actualise it,” Nawangwe said.

Hope and faith

According to Professor Stephen Kiama, vice-chancellor of Kenya’s University of Nairobi (UON), the university has managed to successfully move all its programmes online during the pandemic, including the defence of PhDs. “Universities must accept that they also exist to give people hope and faith. It would be wrong for them to just close as did primary schools when they are centres of knowledge and intellectualism,” he noted.

Echoing the views of Clarke, Kiama said that the time had come for institutions to change the way they were teaching, to meet the needs of the modern students. “We need to repackage learning, have a culture change and agree that we cannot continue teaching the way we were taught during our time.”

“Many of us continue teaching the way we were taught. But students have moved on and that is why you sometimes observe that students are missing class because a lot of information about courses we teach is already available online,” Kiama noted.

Fast-tracking online learning

The University of Dar es Salaam’s Professor Bonaventure Rutinwa said in its strategic plan for 2020-25 the institution envisaged that all its programmes should be online by 2023, but the current pandemic necessitated a review of the plan.

“We planned to have all our courses available online by the year 2023 but this has now been brought forward by events of this year and all programmes will be available online by the year 2021,” he told the forum.

Even as rapid changes continued to take place in higher education, it was important that fundamentals in education were not forgotten, for instance relegating the humanities and arts “to the backburner”, as the focus shifted to finding solutions to emerging challenges, according to Professor Mike Kuria, IUCEA acting executive secretary.

Kuria added that IUCEA was working with regulators of higher education in the six East African Community member states to harmonise programmes across the region. The council was contributing to ongoing changes in the sector, for example developing an online learning platform for competency-based learning.