Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, how is Africa’s higher education sector faring?

By Editor

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa’s higher education landscape was stymied by multiple challenges. Underinvestment, poor leadership and low quality of education have had reverberating effects on the region’s ability to investigate and address issues affecting development. Only nine percent of young adults of university age are enrolled in higher education institutions, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) calculates that Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) is only 0.37 percent of the region’s GDP, less than a third the global average of 1.7 percent.

These challenges have been underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, whose effects have been felt uniquely within the sector. Gaps in vaccination rates and a reduction in consular services, for instance, have restricted the mobility of researchers and academics with African passports. The COVID-19 pandemic has also isolated researchers from support networks, taking a toll on their productivity and mental health. Meanwhile, shutdowns have kept millions of students out of institutions of learning, and girls and women face heightened rates of gender-based violence, and larger burdens of domestic and care work.

Survey and Methodology

As a higher-education player, the Mawazo Institute is interested in understanding how COVID-19 related challenges are affecting Africa’s research capacity and higher education. Through our desk research and publications, we hope to encourage an evidence-based approach in responding to the challenges the sector faces. In 2020, Mawazo conducted its first survey of African higher education learners and researchers on the continent, investigating how the pandemic was affecting learning and research. Our findings showed disruptions to ongoing learning, a dearth of e-learning options, and interruptions to field research as major challenges affecting scholars in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.

To determine how these initial trends had persisted, or shifted, during the length of the pandemic, Mawazo conducted a second, more comprehensive, survey in 2021. The survey explored the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on classrooms and research, as well as other effects of the pandemic on African researchers’ family and domestic responsibilities, productivity, and career growth.

Between August and October 2021, we surveyed a total of 311 respondents from major regions on the continent. Nearly a half of respondents were instructional staff, and 40.1 percent identified as students. Respondents also spanned a wide variety of disciplines, with Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics being the most represented, at 27.2 percent. Further details about the demographic breakdown of the survey are included in our report.

Significant Variations Across Demographic Groups

Unlike in 2020, when the majority of our survey respondents were predominantly men, in 2021, 78 percent of those surveyed were women. East Africa had the highest proportion of male respondents, at 34 percent. In our survey, women comprised 89.5 percent of respondents in the natural sciences, mathematics, and statistics, in contrast to the underrepresentation of women in sciences as a whole. We believe that further research, more representative of the sector, is needed to strengthen our understanding of the impacts of the pandemic. Still, we consider the findings a valuable snapshot of how the pandemic is affecting higher education in Africa.

Among respondents, men reported more severe impacts from the pandemic overall, while women experienced greater losses in productivity. This finding echoes reports which have found that women in academia spend up to three times as much time on household tasks and childcare than their male counterparts. Given the nature of a pandemic that continues to require individuals to spend more time at home, losses in productivity for women risk undoing years of progress towards gender parity in research and STEM. In addition, we found that access to e-learning affected age groups differently. While e-learning has rapidly expanded, older researchers report being harder-hit by the transition to online learning.

Institutional Changes from the Pandemic

We are encouraged to see that higher education on the continent is gradually recovering from the shocks of 2020. In 2021, 73 percent of respondents reported suspending their research at some point since the beginning of the pandemic, but while 38 percent felt “extremely affected” by these interruptions a year prior, at the time of the survey, only 6.9 percent reported being “extremely affected.”

Further, although 90 percent of respondents in 2021 reported that the pandemic had impacted their learning – resulting in the closure of classes, changes in schedules or class size, or shifts to e-learning – the extent of this disruption appeared to decrease over the second year of the pandemic. Forty two percent of respondents reported that classroom learning had been “extremely affected” by the pandemic twelve months prior to the survey, a figure that dropped to only 8.7 percent at the time of the survey.

Access to e-learning has also increased since the start of the pandemic. Between our two surveys in 2020 and 2021, the proportion of individuals who reported having access to e-learning options more than doubled, going from 38.5 percent to 83.8 percent. Over time, survey respondents also reported increasing levels of satisfaction with the quality of e-learning options available to them, suggesting that institutions are innovating around the novel challenges presented by the pandemic.

New modes of working, learning and teaching hold the promise for better opportunities for those historically excluded from higher education. By increasing internet access, as well as assessment and research in the delivery of online education, institutions can help ensure both equity and quality. Our 2021 survey findings, for instance, showed that although 83.8 percent of learners and researchers had access to e-learning, 90 percent of respondents were still reporting interruptions to their in-person classroom learning. This indicates that universities may not have fully addressed their limitations.

Youth and Innovation for the Continent

The gaps revealed by the pandemic threaten to spill over into the future,

with detrimental effects for the next generation of researchers. Losses in career growth, which we organized into five brackets – access to career opportunities, mentorship, training and funding, mobility and collaboration opportunities – were felt across all groups, but appear to have hit younger scholars disproportionately. For early-career researchers, who are at a crucial point in their career and building the networks and foundations for longer-term success, these kinds of disruptions have the potential to snowball into larger career losses in the future.

Inversely, our survey findings suggest that younger researchers may be somewhat at an advantage when it comes to adapting to new technologies needed for remote work and online research. While 80.8 percent of scholars aged 20-29 reported interruptions to their work in 2021 (decreasing slightly from 83.6 percent in 2020), this figure jumped to 90 percent and more for respondents in all of the older age groups, including 100 percent of respondents aged 50 or older. This suggests that older researchers may require greater support and training in order to make use of emerging online tools and technologies.

What next?

The analysis here demonstrates some of the challenges and opportunities facing African higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic period. Addressing these challenges requires concerted and collaborative efforts, especially focused on those who have been historically excluded from the higher education ecosystem. It also requires the prioritization of African higher education as an engine for growth, development, and transformation that is in need of massive investment. In the short term, some key changes can help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on higher education.

Working from home, for instance, is offering new possibilities. Researchers have reported greater productivity working from home on tasks such as writing and analyzing data. However, other collaborative areas of research work benefit from in-person activities. Institutions can gain from hybrid systems that optimize for productivity. But for women to realize the gains of such a system, there will need to be a more equitable distribution of domestic and care work, alongside improved support systems. This could look like changing attitudes and policies that penalize women for taking time off work to provide care, as well as offering childcare at universities and research institutions. Promisingly, such policies have already been adopted by institutions like the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya.

More broadly, recent studies demonstrate a need for new support systems for researchers, some of whom find themselves cut off from networks they would usually access through their home institutions. Building systems that deliver necessary technology, skills training and mental health services to remote workers may offset some of the professional and personal losses incurred from COVID-19.

The growth in online education will also require regulatory systems and policies to standardize quality and enhance accountability. In South Africa, the government is currently developing a framework that would help ensure that online learning institutions meet required quality standards and create mechanisms for accountability from learners and parents. Finally, the future of work requires crucial training in skills and the use of technologies with particular attention paid to age disparities, ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition online. – Africa Portal