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Surveying the impact of COVID-19 on Africa's higher education and research sector

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Surveying the impact of COVID-19 on Africa's higher education and research sector

Kari Mugo

Naliaka Odera

Maina Wachira

08 Jun 2020

6min min read
  • Education
  • Epidemics

Academic and research institutions find themselves tasked with learning how to adapt in real-time in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that is significantly disrupting the global higher education sector. Most of the focus so far has been on western countries, leaving major gaps in our understanding of how Africa's own centres of knowledge production are faring in this crisis. We know that the state of research and higher education on the continent has long been a cause for concern even before the COVID-19 crisis and early indications show that the virus is exacerbating these vulnerabilities.

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Now, more than ever, a reckoning with these structural issues is required. Leaders must leverage this moment to seek opportunities for the African knowledge ecosystem to not only survive the current crisis, but also build pathways for longer term resilience against future shocks to the continent's education systems.

The African disadvantage

Data on the African higher education and research sector is scarce, but the little we know points to a sector that is lagging across most indicators.

A study by UNESCO in 2013 revealed that sub-Saharan African researchers account for about 1% of the world's researchers across all disciplines. In another 2018 study surveying global investment in Research and Development (R&D), sub-Saharan countries were found to spend 0.4% of their gross domestic expenditure on R&D compared to the world average of 1.7%. Home to 15% of the world's population, Africa's research potential and capacity is being greatly under-utilised. Similarly, our universities are struggling to achieve their core mandate of educating Africa's youth with only about 6% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa enrolled in higher education institutions. For the minority of students fortunate enough to enter higher education institutions on the continent, they are still faced with numerous challenges in earning their degrees.

"Beyond basic gaps in accessibility to e-learning, solutions to existing infrastructural problems must also be gender responsive."

In diagnosing the problem there are many fissures to point to. For one, systemic infrastructural and funding issues have meant that universities across sub-Saharan Africa have been slow to meet demand in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM)-related fields.

In Kenya, the majority of PhD programs are still overwhelmingly in non-STEM subjects like Business and Administration. While other countries like Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa have a higher number of PhD students in STEM field their STEM PhD faculty is woefully low.

Beyond STEM fields, teaching and research is significantly constrained due to capacity gaps across the board. A joint 2015 British Council and German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) report found that only 43% of higher education faculty in Nigeria hold PhDs. The figure is 34% in Ghana, and a shocking 8% in Ethiopia. In addition, there are more students per teacher at sub-Saharan African universities compared to the global average. There is an overall problem in the sufficiency of higher education institutions from the number of institutions to the number of qualified faculty.

Alongside this is a gender gap mirrored in the lack of diversity amongst students, faculty and researchers in general. In Kenya, women make up only 31% of doctoral students and across the continent, account for a third of researchers. This figure is even lower in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Ghana.

The Mawazo Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya, works to close some of these infrastructural gaps by equipping young African women to conduct high quality research on issues affecting African development. Mawazo also provides training and platforms for its beneficiaries and other local experts to spark important conversations and influence decision-making in the public sphere. Through our programming, we work to strengthen the continent's research pipeline by providing direct funding and capacity support to early-career African researchers.

COVID-19 and the African Academy

To better understand how the pandemic is affecting Africa's knowledge production centres, Mawazo surveyed 501 individuals affiliated with higher education and research institutions across the continent. Our respondents were students, academics, researchers and other actors in the higher education sector. Sixty-nine percent of respondents were based in East Africa, almost 20% in West Africa, 8% in Southern Africa and another 3% either in Central or North Africa, or outside of the continent. The survey attracted more men than women, with 65% of our respondents identifying as male and only 36% as female. Mawazo also collected additional demographic data on age which can be viewed in our summary report.

The results of the survey alerted us to a fractured system, exacerbated by a global pandemic. While 83% of respondents reported experiencing disruption to their ongoing learning, alarmingly, only 39% said they were enrolled in institutions offering e-learning options. With little known about how long the pandemic is expected to affect the region, this presents a critical gap for continued learning for students in the region. It should be noted, however, that while there are not enough institutions providing e-learning, the trend across the continent is not homogeneous. We also found disparities in access to e-learning based on a respondent's gender and age.

Only 17% of West African respondents reported being at institutions with e-learning options, compared to 43% of East African respondents and 41% of respondents in Southern Africa, which suggests that while there are many similar issues plaguing the continent, the regional specific nuances are key in considering how to resolve these issues. Our study also found that more women reported their institutions providing e-learning (46% compared to 34% of men). Respondents aged between 40-49 years old also reported higher rates of access to e-learning in comparison to other age groups.

When we surveyed respondents who had been engaged in research activities before the pandemic, 73% reported a suspension of their lab or field research activities as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Depending on how long restrictions on research activities are kept in place, as well as downstream impacts on research funding and the broader higher education sector, this could have a significant negative impact on research productivity in the region which as we noted is already low.

Nuances were also observed along gender lines. Our survey showed that more women – 85% compared to 81% of men were experiencing course interruptions, and women were also reporting higher rates of disruptions in their research activities. The disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in higher education is further emphasised across age groups and research activities.

For instance, younger women in their twenties were more likely to report experiencing interruptions to their learning (at 90%, compared to 81% of men their age). Interestingly, women in their twenties reported similar rates of disruption to their research activities as their male counterparts (67.5% versus 67%); however women in their forties reported higher rates of disruption (at 90% compared to 70% of men in their age group). Given that women often lag behind their male counterparts in science and research fields as a result of gender stereotypes and pervasive sexism within and outside the academy, the disproportionate effects of the crisis on an already under-represented group is concerning. It is clear that beyond basic gaps in accessibility to e-learning, solutions to existing infrastructural problems must also be gender responsive.

Going forward

The large number of respondents experiencing course interruptions highlights the serious need for greater investment in online learning. In response, the Mawazo Institute has been working on developing an online training platform that is affordable, accessible to users of varying abilities and financial resources. Academic institutions should follow suit in ensuring that the majority of their coursework can be completed online. Indeed, multiple universities have already been embracing digital learning, either by ensuring their faculty and students have access to off campus libraries like Kenyatta University, or televising lessons like Mount Kenya University. The Next Einstein Forum (NEF), a platform that works to leverage science for human development globally, with Africa as its focal point, in a report on Africa's responses to COVID-19, emphasised the importance of institutions moving towards 'supporting advanced digital leteracy competencies'.

To address the disproportionate regional impacts of the current crisis, it may make sense to adapt more regional rather than Pan-African solutions as well. We know how reductive it can be to paint Africa with one broad stroke and what our survey found is that impacts of the COVID-19 crisis do vary across regions. Individual countries and systems will need to develop solutions that address characteristic weaknesses in order to help mitigate the costs of the pandemic on our already fragile knowledge centres.

At this juncture, it is useful to remind the reader that not everything coming out of Africa's academic institutions is bad news. Our research centres, though functioning at decreased capacity in many cases, are still active. At the University of Pretoria in South Africa researchers are working with the World Health Organization (WHO) on a project that aims to discern the efficiency of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality. Meanwhile, at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, researchers are involved in several projects, including the construction of a more affordable ventilator prototype and participating in a national task force to oversee vaccine trials. At the University of Ghana, scientists have successfully sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 virus genome, which will allow for further research and understanding of the traits of the virus. All around the continent, researchers and institutions are banding together to address COVID-19.

When we consider the global disparity in resources available to Africa's researchers, their accomplishments are nothing short of impressive. How much more could be done with more investment and structural changes to modernise our centres of knowledge? The pandemic is shining a spotlight on the very significant gaps in our institutions, including higher education and research. The question is will we be able to effectively create the solutions we need after this?

(Main image: LumiNola via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

This article was edited on 10 June to reflected rounded percentages from the survey data. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.