COVID-19 impact on higher education in Africa

By Peter Koninckx, Strategic and Commercial Advisor, Cunégonde Fatondji, Analyst Intern, and Joel Burgos, Senior Project Manager, ShARE

Beyond the death toll and illness of millions of people due to COVID-19, businesses, healthcare, culture and education have had to cope with severe disturbances. But in our opinion, one could argue that higher-education students are amongst the most affected populations, particularly those in Africa. Although Africa is the continent with the least reported cases, the closure of higher education institutions was more widespread, and mitigation measures less effective than in other regions, according to a survey we conducted with more than 165 students across 21 African countries. No quick-fix solution exists, but the current crisis has highlighted the weaknesses in higher education in Africa, indicating where governments, international institutions, NGOs, and the private sector should focus their efforts.

Strong initial reaction to the COVID-19 crisis…

According to the Association of African Universities (IAU) Global Impact Survey on COVID-19, university closures in Africa in response to the pandemic were very effective: 77% of African universities compared to around 55% in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. However, while the percentage of higher education institutions where teaching was entirely cancelled remains low in all other regions (~3%), in Africa it is currently reported to be at 24%. Furthermore, over 40% of institutions in Africa were still developing alternative solutions at the time of the study, while other regions had already implemented them. Based on our own study, 88% of the surveyed students said that their school had discontinued in-person classes because of COVID-19.

…but less successful mitigation measures…

Most prominently, only 29% of African higher education institutions were able to quickly move teaching and learning online, compared to 85% in Europe. Many African higher education institutions were not prepared to move teaching online and closing their campuses meant they had to suspend teaching. Fortunately, most institutions have started developing digital or self-study solutions. However, teaching still remains completely cancelled for one quarter of African higher education institutions.

In Europe, overall acceptance of digitally enhanced learning and teaching in higher education has grown in recent years. Before the crisis, over 80% of institutions indicated that they had set up online repositories for educational materials and a unit to support teachers with digitally enhanced learning and teaching. These capacities may not have been sufficient for the suddenly increased demand, but have significantly helped institutions to ramp up distance learning.

In our survey, looking at schools that had discontinued in person classes, 22% of students responded that they had not been substituted with remote learning solutions. Of those that did employ remote learning solutions: 13% of students reported that they were not at all effective; 21% responded that they were minimally effective; and only 8% reported that they were highly effective. As a result, 40% of students perceive that they have learned less than half of their original academic curriculum; and only 10% reported to have learned about the same. Finally, for 32% of these students graduation has been delayed by at least a semester or in some cases by over a year.

…due to the significant digital divide in Africa compared to other regions

According to the US’ International Telecommunication Union, 47% of developing country populations used the Internet compared to 87% of developed country populations before COVID-19. According to a UNESCO study, at least 60% of the student population has been affected by a lack of means or tools to access online education during the pandemic. According to our survey, although 96% of students reported that they had access to a computer and intermittent access to the internet through a computer, 85% reported that the lack of access to or quality of internet connection was a significant obstacle in completing remote work.

Aware of this reality, Professor Leopoldo Amado, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commissioner, acknowledged that the West African sub-region lags behind in terms of technological and educational infrastructure and called on member states to invest massively in these areas. 

The way forward

The current crisis highlights the differences that still exist between regions, in particular with respect to digital technologies. African countries must ensure that technology does not further amplify existing inequalities in access and quality of learning in universities. This is not only a matter of providing access to technology and online learning resources, but efficiently using these tools to maintain students’ level of competence even when they cannot attend in-person learning.

We think that there are three key levers to close the gap between Africa and other regions.

First, African higher education institutions must accelerate the digitisation of curricula and establish a real culture of online training and distance education, while simultaneously strengthening teachers’ capabilities in techno-pedagogy. This will not only mitigate the impact of any future exogenous crisis, but also facilitate access to higher education to a wider group of potential students, e.g. those that cannot attend in-person classes because of location or adults who want to get a degree.

Secondly, significant investments in digital infrastructure are necessary to enable the emergence of online and distance learning. Of course, funds are limited and trade-offs must be made versus more traditional infrastructure projects (roads, railways, ports, etc.). However, African youth is the future, and donors could specifically target digital infrastructure through their funding. A great example is Scaling Solar in the energy infrastructure sector, which could be used as a template for improving digital infrastructure across the continent.

And finally, targeted programmes could be offered to bridge remaining gaps. For instance, online learning initiatives aimed at students living in households that face difficulties in accessing technology and a broadband connection, or dedicated programmes that complement the traditional curriculum. Some examples include ShARE’s leadership programme in Togo, or the pan-African women-leaders programme that we are currently launching. The former is a leadership programme, funded by the public sector and private donors, offered to high-potential students before they are employed by the Togolese government; the latter is an emerging initiative to set-up similar leadership programmes for young women in other African countries. Many other examples exist of public-private partnerships focusing on specific gaps and offering learning opportunities to target students.

Africa is a continent with enormous potential, and we think that through education this potential can be achieved faster, more efficiently, and more permanently. The African Union, with its Agenda2063 goal of “developing Africa’s human and social capital” also acknowledges this. Moreover, coordination at the regional level could accelerate the improvement of higher education. One example of innovation across countries and universities during the pandemic was the development of a prototype for a new non-invasive respirator, as well as face shields and splash protection masks, which can be quickly manufactured via 3D printing, by scientists, students and professionals from Honoris United Universities, the first and largest pan-African network of private higher education institutions.

Solutions, best practices and inspiring successes exist. It is now up to political decision makers, international institutions, NGOs, and private donors to work together to make it happen.