Authors: Kari Mugo, Maina Wachira, and Naliaka Odera
Site of publication: Accord
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: October 21st, 2020
The African disadvantage
A study by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (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.
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
In diagnosing the problem there are many fissures that require attention. 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.
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 others in the higher education sector. 69% 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.
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 that region. It should be noted that the e-learning trend across the continent is not homogeneous, and there are 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, suggesting there are many similar issues plaguing the continent. But the specific regional nuances are key in considering how to resolve these issues. Further, the study 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 with 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 COVID-19. 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 the already low research productivity in the region.
Nuances were 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 disruption in their research activities.
To address the disproportionate regional impacts of COVID-19, it may make sense to adapt more regional than Pan-African solutions. We know how reductive it is to paint Africa with one broad stroke, and our survey found that the impacts of COVID-19 do vary across regions. Individual countries and systems will need to develop solutions that address characteristic weaknesses. This would help to mitigate the costs of the pandemic on our already fragile knowledge centres.
However, it is useful to emphasize that not everything coming out of Africa’s academic institutions is negative. 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 vaccine oversight task force. 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.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.