The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly devastating effect on African universities, revealing vast inequalities and a lack of technological capacity. Fixing higher education on the continent requires greater investment in scientific research and placing social justice at the center of universities’ teaching and research agendas.
COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on millions of schoolchildren and university students worldwide, causing a global education crisis that affects nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries. But the pandemic has had a particularly devastating effect on already-impaired universities in Africa, highlighting the urgent need for reform.
The requirement to enforce social distancing during the pandemic has led universities around the world to close their campuses and shift to online learning, which had a substantial effect on students’ lives. Many experienced financial difficulties, with some forced to leave on-campus housing and others losing out on internship opportunities. In Africa, the digital transformation of higher education has revealed systemic inequities, including a vast digital divide, insufficient resources, and inadequate education in information technologies.
Across the continent, numerous national, regional, and global initiatives have sought to help students and faculty make the transition to digital learning. In countries like Morocco and Nigeria, for example, civil-society organizations urged governments to provide students unable to participate in remote learning with laptops, personal computers, and internet connections.
Most African universities are public, which may put them in a precarious financial position if governments decide to cut education budgets. Although private colleges and universities account for only 10-20% of African students, they are essential for increasing access to education and cultivating a skilled workforce. But private universities are also suffering from financial difficulties, owing to a drop in tuition revenues.
Supportive policies and regulatory regimes are essential to ensure the sustainability of higher education, particularly in countries like Ethiopia, where more public spending may be impossible to secure in the current political and economic climate. Many African governments, for example, have been able to negotiate with phone and internet service providers to improve their telecommunications infrastructure. Yet poor communications, unreliable power grids, and costly equipment and data have severely impeded these efforts, demonstrating the limits of this approach.
The move to distance learning as a permanent component of higher education also requires African universities to train professors and instructors to meet the evolving needs of their current and future students. Educators’ capacity to modify teaching and learning processes is essential to the development and sustainability of higher education. Universities need to equip students with the intellectual and technological tools to make the most of this new world.
But the greatest pressing concern continues to be growing inequality in educational opportunities. The transition to remote learning has exposed the severity of the gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It has also exacerbated existing inequities, including the divide between wealthy private institutions and public universities, which rely on government funding and are more socioeconomically diverse.
Most people would agree that increasing access to higher education is one of the most effective ways to reduce social and economic inequality. But addressing such disparities requires reforming African higher education itself. Universities and colleges must elevate underrepresented voices and adjust their curricula accordingly. If African universities are to promote social cohesion and strong civic institutions, they must make fairness, inclusivity, and sustainability their top priorities, placing social justice at the center of their teaching and research agendas.
It is no less crucial that African countries bolster funding for scientific research. The vast majority of African governments allocate less than 1% of their GDP to research, despite repeated requests for additional funds from universities on the continent. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities (also known as the Shanghai ranking), only 18 African universities are currently ranked among the world’s top 1,000: nine in South Africa, seven in Egypt, one in Nigeria, and one in Ethiopia. According to a 2015 policy brief from the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, less than 1% of the world’s intellectual output is produced on the continent. African countries’ long-term competitiveness and productivity growth will depend on how much and how fast this changes.
Fortunately, the pandemic has re-energized African efforts to expand funding for interdisciplinary scientific research. Increased support for research would improve the continent’s technological capabilities and help officials prepare for future pandemics and global challenges like climate change.
But to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG4) – which calls on policymakers to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” – Africa needs more than medical doctors and scientists. Meeting today’s social and political challenges requires teachers, lawyers, writers, philosophers, linguists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists, too. To that end, universities should also support the humanities and social sciences. Here, too, they must be inventive and committed to systemic reform.