COVID-19 hit examination integrity and research hard

Most universities in East Africa struggled to uphold the integrity of examinations that were administered online during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA), a lobby group that uses research to improve education in African countries, in collaboration with the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA).

The survey report, ‘The impact of COVID-19 on teaching models and the supply and demand of faculty in the East African Community’, indicates that the online examination systems’ failure was intensified by a lack of preparedness, unstable internet, low individual ownership of laptops and computers, poor e-learning training and cumbersome grading.

According to Dr Antony Mbithi, the lead investigator and a former research manager at ESSA, and Dr Salome Guchu, a principal innovation and outreach officer at IUCEA, failure to uphold integrity in examinations was measured in terms of students’ possessing and using materials prohibited during the examinations or breaching university examination conduct policies.

The survey’s sample consisted of 133 public and private universities that are members of IUCEA and are located in the East African Community, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The survey was carried out online from 12 April 2021 to 14 June 2021 and 1,658 respondents took part.

Strict closures caused the most problems

Against the regional average of 24% of universities that had difficulties in upholding the integrity of online examinations, Uganda and Kenya had the highest number of universities that struggled, at 31% and 27%, respectively.

In Burundi and Tanzania, the figure was less than 10%. Universities in these countries did not experience strict closures and most exams were administered in person, leading to fewer problems upholding integrity.

It appears that most examination integrity challenges were largely connected to poor e-learning transition as 63% of students in the universities that were sampled lacked e-learning skills, internet connectivity, or the equipment to transition to e-learning.

Before the pandemic, 50% of the universities in the region did not have any open, distance, and e-learning, or ODEL, policies in place and 47% of students were reluctant to move to e-learning. But, whereas the survey found that 38% of the academic staff lacked skills, internet connectivity and equipment to transition to e-learning, 31% of lecturers felt that e-learning was not effective. About 30% of the universities also did not have e-learning platforms and 34% stated they did not have the financial resources to invest in e-learning platforms.

Many universities not prepared online

The researchers found that, beyond negatively impacting examination integrity, the pandemic disrupted teaching models that were largely contact-based, requiring of students and lecturers to be present in a classroom.

“This meant that universities had to quickly find and adopt new teaching models to continue learning,” stated the report. However, the study found that, while most universities eventually transitioned to online and blended teaching modes, 50% of universities in Tanzania continued with contact teaching practices. In this context, universities in Tanzania and Burundi where there were no strict lockdowns – even at the height of the pandemic – continued to have a low uptake of the new teaching models.

Other negative effects reported include a decline in research activities. According to the report, across the East African community, 70% of academic staff did not conduct research during the pandemic.

Research output was negatively impacted by a lack of research funds, as well as the intensive e-learning workload. As a result, less than 25% of academics published, an issue that was also amplified by the withdrawal of research funding and suspension of research projects in many universities across the region. The attendance of online conferences by academic staff was reported to be at 36%.

Challenges to career progress occurred in most universities in the region as, on average, the pandemic delayed faculty promotion by about 10%. Rwanda reported the highest percentage, namely 24%. On average, 18% of the faculty across the region reported that they did not attend any personal development meetings, 11% feared retrenchment and 20% had their research funds reduced or suspended.

These challenges contributed to 10% of the academic staff relocating to rural areas due to the high cost of living in urban areas where most universities are located. In that context, 25% of academic staff across the region reported financial difficulties in providing for their families. In Uganda, half the respondents indicated this was the case.

“To counter the problem, 23% of the [participating] faculty members reported that they had ventured into alternative sources of income, with Uganda leading at 38%,” Mbithi and Guchu said.

Lecturers struggled financially

The study also included questions regarding respondents’ well-being during the pandemic. At 6%, Rwandese academic staff had the lowest levels of depression while their counterparts in Uganda at 25% had the highest levels in that indicator. According to the report, across the region, marital strife was experienced by 8% of faculty members and 5% sought counselling services.

The pandemic also led to many international students suspending their studies, as well as deferment of student exchange programmes at universities across the region. The report noted that 23% of international students suspended their studies in the region. The countries most affected were Kenya (43%), Rwanda (50%), and Uganda (33%). Kenya and Uganda also suspended their exchange programmes by 23% and 25%, respectively.