COVID-19 is stoking inequality but also innovation in HE

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequality in African higher education but, where universities have had successes in adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, they can build on their experience to deal with the challenge, the third World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) 2020 event was told on 17 November. The event was hosted virtually by the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in association with University World News.

Since March 2020, most educational institutions in Africa have remained closed on the instructions of their governments and moved contact learning online. But the pandemic has forced universities to devise strategies and solutions to ensure quality provision, and students and higher education institutions have learnt to adjust and ensure continued teaching and learning.

“Inequality in education is an issue during this period,” said Professor Stephen Gitahi Kiama, vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi. “In most cases, the learners, tutors and lecturers are mostly working from home. This brings need for innovation and innovative strategies,” he said.

In Africa a number of higher education institutions adjusted to the new way of doing things, though with various challenges. Some moved online while others tried to buy time, but some university students could not access lectures because of the digital network infrastructure, Kiama said.

“Stark disparities in terms of connectivity remain,” George Ananga, East Africa representative for the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) said.

Two-thirds of ACU’s more than 500 members are in low- and middle-income countries. “We are likely to be excluding a huge chunk of such a constituency,” Ananga said.

The University of Nairobi is one of the institutions that moved all of its services including, meetings, teaching and examinations online, working with network providers after the government banned face-to-face lectures.

Since then, the university has completed its academic year, recruited new students, hosted a graduation in September and another is planned for December, Kiama said.

The experience is different for Cameroon. Akaba James, Open Dreams Cameroon director, remembered how nervously the country watched COVID-19 hit other countries. Cameroon shut down its borders and schools followed in the middle of the second semester.

“There was just no time for teachers, universities and educational establishments to prepare to transit into online education,” he said.

Distance education has never been part of the wider curriculum in Cameroon. Technology for distance education was non-existent. The country is quite wide. While the city centres have internet and the technology, it’s not the same for the suburbs. In the meantime, Cameroon had the highest number of COVID-19 cases within Central Africa. Some manage to deliver some services online but some university personnel had no experience of teaching online.

In April Open Dreams carried out a survey on internet and online accessibility to secondary school teachers and university lecturers. The results showed that 47.9% resided in an urban setting with greater access to technology and internet, 27.7% were in a semi-urban setting and 24% were in rural areas which, by default, were technologically disadvantaged.

Nearly a quarter of correspondents (24.6%) said electricity in their areas was not stable. For instance, in Bameda, electricity is rationed to six hours a day. Some 90% complained about the high cost of data. The vast majority (83.6%) were not used to online teaching and learning before COVID-19.

Cameroon has a policy that bars mobile phones from schools, but perceptions have since changed, with 54.3% now agreeing that phones can be used in school for education. Since April, all universities have quickly adopted online learning, television stations have become teaching classrooms, and now Cameroon has a distance education policy with satellite centres that help to develop and nurture distance learning across the country, James said.

In Uganda more than 15 million students and higher education institutions were affected by COVID-19, said Professor Maud Kamatenesi Mugisha, vice-chancellor of Bishop Stuart University, a Christian university established in 2002, which runs 89 accredited courses and has an enrolment of 5,000 students.

“It was evident that there was a lot of unpreparedness across the country,” Kamatenesi Mugisha said, narrating the impact of COVID-19 on private universities in Uganda.

When lockdown came, three-quarters of private higher education institutions were unable to pay their staff salaries, she said. As a tuition-funded institution, contracts for staff at her university were suspended.

In the long run, Bishop Stuart University and other private universities struggled to provide information technology infrastructure resources for staff and students.

Uganda moved to establish an open distance learning policy which expected institutions to come up with their own policies. It resulted in 5% of Ugandan universities being accredited for open distance learning. Staff had to teach online. When universities opened in October after closure in March, only final students returned to school, the rest are continuing with classes online.

In a survey to find out about students’ readiness to learn, Kamatenesi Mugisha said most students accessed their learning materials on their mobile phones. Zoom, Microsoft, Skype, Moodle and Google Classroom were among the most common platforms used for e-learning. Students from 15 to 25 years of age were eager to use online learning. “Even if COVID-19 remains, we will have it easier to transit to online with new students,” she said.

Kamatenesi Mugisha remained concerned that higher education staff needed to be taught to use online as some were unable to prepare lectures in the context of online classes. “We need to rebrand courses and be ready to run joint programmes,” she said.

The digital divide is a threat to equitable access to education and lifelong learning, but not only to Africa.

“There is more need at the moment for global collaboration due to various changes in education and demand for globally competitive graduates who can fit into the global markets,” Kiama said.