Research networks challenged by COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for researchers to be more innovative in the way they design and conduct research.

Travel restrictions as well as a ban on field and laboratory research, the result of stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, have left many research projects lagging behind, suspended or postponed.

This has prompted researchers to come up with creative plans to complete the work or to conduct new research, said Professor Adebola Omowunmi Oyedeji, a professor of organic chemistry at Walter Sisulu University in South Africa.

She was part of a panel discussion at the virtual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa and the African Network for Internationalization of Education on 1-2 October titled “Innovation and resilience in higher education internationalisation in an era of COVID-19 and beyond.”

Research, like all aspects of higher education, has also been affected by COVID-19.

Oyedeji said the lockdown situation also demanded that researchers be more imaginative in the way they connected with other scientists, and on how to get new collaborators and sustain existing ones. Researchers should have strategies to guarantee continuity of their work during this period and beyond because mobility would be an issue even after COVID-19, Oyedeji added.

“Researchers need to network at all times, not just in conferences but also online. They have a duty to share knowledge, expertise and content with other people online,” she argued. They also needed to identify weaknesses in infrastructure in their universities to be able to know what kind of research could be conducted rapidly through the use of available technologies, she said.

'Partnerships in space’

According to Ylva Rodny-Gumede, head of internationalisation and professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg, said the switch to online education has helped and triggered innovations in novel ways.

It has led to the building of new “partnerships in space”, she said.

The switch could also lead to universities finding new and better ways of reaching international students and doing so in a more affordable manner, she added.

While budget cuts could hit universities post-COVID-19, internationalisation should still thrive, aided through online learning. This is because foreign students could afford fees because their reduced physical mobility would save on costs, Rodny-Gumede observed.

Budget cuts

Yusuf Sayed, professor of international education and development policy at the University of Sussex and South African research chair in teacher education, warned that major budget cuts were a possibility.

Citing the example of Britain, he observed that some governments had not included higher education in their COVID-19 economic recovery plans. This would require universities to be more innovative and to come up with strategies in response to the situation.

Sayed noted that in many countries higher education had been facing budget cuts over many years.

Kenya’s Moi University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Nathan Ogechi urged institutions to prioritise budgets for infrastructure for virtual learning.

He predicted blended learning would become the new normal, with students obtaining both remote and contact learning.

The establishment of open universities such as the Open University of Tanzania, would be ideal. These institutions would, among other things, ensure that internationalisation thrived under any circumstances. It would guarantee minimal disruption to learning in the event of calamities or disasters in the future.