Site of publication : The Docs World Bank
Type of publication : Report
Date of publication : December 11th, 2020
Tertiary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa
With 48 countries and a population of over billion, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is one of the largest regions in the world. The current gross tertiary education enrollment ratio is 9.4%, which is well below the global average of 38%. Of course, the rate varies greatly within the region. For example, in Mauritius gross tertiary enrollment is 40%, in Cabo Verde it is 23.6%, in Ghana and Togo it is 15%, in Lesotho it is 10%, and in Niger it is 4.4%. Overall, the region spends 21% of government education expenditure on tertiary education compared to 27% on secondary education and 43% on primary education.
Across the continent, approximately 9 million students are enrolled in the tertiary education sector, which is 3% of all student enrollments in the region and 4% of total tertiary education students enrolled globally.
Impact of COVID-19 on Tertiary Education in SSA
The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa took significant steps to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic soon after the first few cases appeared and started imposing countrywide lockdowns starting in mid-March. As of December 1, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases detected via testing in the region was approximately 1.5 million, with 32,561 deaths recorded at that time. Half of the countries in the region, are still closed for learning for approximately 4 million tertiary education students. Some of these students, apart from learning, continue being without essential facilities such as dormitories, on campus jobs, and internet access. In several cases in the region, universities are also struggling to meet the required health protocols issued by their national health officials to allow in-person classes and hence why they remain closed for in-person classes.
Across the continent, approximately 9 million students are enrolled in the tertiary education sector, which is 3% of all student enrollments in the region and 4% of total tertiary education students enrolled globally
Government cuts to education budgets and fee increases are further adding to the impact and likely to worsen. In Kenya, the Commission on University Education reallocated K Sh 272 million (US$2.5 million) of its development cash to a COVID-19 emergency fund. There is also a proposed cut of K Sh 3.9 billion (US$36.4 million) from the Basic Education department. In Nigeria, the federal government plans to cut ₦26.51 billion (US$68 million) from the basic health care sector and ₦50.76 billion (US$130 million) from the education sector to support their pandemic response initiatives. Kenya is also proposing doubling tuition fees in public and private universities which may add to the burden of students.
Teaching and Learning
With campuses closed, colleges and universities have had no option but to deliver programs, where possible, via online/remote platforms. This transition has exposed and continues to expose the huge digital divide that exists among the universities, the majority of which do not have adequate infrastructure nor techno-pedagogical capacity to deliver entire programs online. There are only a few fully online universities in SSA, including the African Virtual University (AVU), the Witwatersrand University in South Africa, and the University of Rwanda’s e-learning platform. These institutions have the existing capacity and experience to offer online programs, but they are mostly targeted toward students who want to upgrade their skills while they are already employed, though their mandates continue to expand. Some universities that had adequate digital infrastructure have been swift in transitioning to online teaching and learning. For example, University of Ghana rolled out its online program starting April, using the Sakai Learning Management System platform. Other examples include the Distance Learning Centre of Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), and Kenyatta University’s Digital School of Virtual and Open Learning (Kenya).
Instructors have been providing online classes wherever feasible, but most of the universities have neither access to online learning platforms nor training in effective delivery of remote learning. Classes are being delivered via Skype or Zoom, for instance, which compromises the quality of learning and classroom participation, and limits the capacity for collaborative, innovative teaching practices. Classes that require access to laboratory experiments are continuing without any such intervention, using virtual laboratory programs where available but otherwise reverting to lectures and independent study efforts, without hands-on lab work. Access to the internet or technology is a major problem across the SSA region. With almost half of the population living on less than US$2 a day, internet access is limited to 25 percent of the region’s population, with only 0.44 percent having access to fixed broadband. Among tertiary education students, 30 percent have access to internet at home, and 42 percent own a personal computer. The majority of this access is restricted to the most privileged members of society. In contrast, 97 percent of tertiary education students report owning a mobile phone and 74 percent own a radio, which is proportionally distributed across different wealth quintiles. Such resources are used to deliver remote education to basic and secondary level students and may be useful for tertiary education, as well.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the lowest research capacity and output in the world. According to Elsevier, currently, the region contributes less than 1 percent to global research, but the region has the potential for tremendous growth in scientific production. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of academic staff papers grew by almost 43 percent. A significant portion of research funding is available through either European or American development agencies and other global research funding agencies, though there are very few research funding agencies in the region that are Africa-led, such as Pan-African University (PAU).
Exams, Graduation, and Admissions
Disruptions in classes midsemester, and with only a minority of universities prepared to provide online learning, led to broad discussions of how to assess student learning to close out the term. The ability of academic staff and of institutions to conduct exams also depends on how quickly they were able to pivot toward thoughtful remote learning modalities, including online educational platforms. Pass/fail assessments, open note exams, and change of final work from exams to research papers are all options being considered in lieu of traditional assessment methods. Even where universities managed to develop online coursework and exams, with only 30 percent of students having internet access, not all would be able to access the course materials or take those online exams. Without thoughtful consideration and creative problem solving, there may be delays in students receiving relevant assessments and graduating from their programs.
Between 1990 and 2014, the number of private universities in the region increased at a much faster pace, from 30 to 1,000, than public universities, which increased from 100 to 500. Private universities in SSA rely heavily on student fees to continue their operations and may not be eligible for funding from the government. In Ghana, some private institutions have not been able to pay staff salaries for March and April due to 50 percent unpaid student fees. The current pandemic may force some of these private universities to start laying off employees. For example, the University of Technology and Arts of Byumba (UTAB) in Rwanda had suspended about 40 staff members. Eventually, these private universities may close due to a shortage of revenue. This can have a long-term impact on the quality of tertiary education in the region, eventually having an impact on economic development.
Potential Solutions and Mitigation Measures
With a huge disparity in access to digital infrastructure, most students in the region are not currently able to continue their learning. While the COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for African universities to explore the potential of introducing technology-based platforms for learning, most of them are presently not equipped with any such platforms within their learning management systems. The lockdown situation further prevents their ability to investigate best options for e-learning to implement for their students. The following mitigation measures and solutions provide shortterm and long-term actions that can be taken by tertiary education institutions in addressing this operational gap.
In the short or medium term, it is important to assess the preexisting capacity of the universities to deliver continued teaching and learning via remote and online learning platforms, and the proportion of students and faculty that can access these while off-campus. In addition, it would be important to understand the readiness of the faculty members to deliver online content. This will ensure greater connectivity and flexibility for continued learning.
In the short term, universities that do not have access to online platforms can promote the integration of courses available through external platforms like Coursera, EdX, and France université numérique (FUN). Coursera and EdX offered free enrollment periods in response to the pandemic closures, allowing for interim coverage to ensure continued student learning. With built-in assessment capabilities, these courses allow instructors to keep track of student progress through the course. As many of these options do not require continuous internet access, students even in remote areas with limited internet access can take courses. Makerere University’s School of Engineering, for example, has set up Coursera for Campus hub which has provided students to take online classes as part of their credit requirement. Since, as noted above, 97 percent of tertiary education students in the region at least have access to mobile phones, institutions can also provide funding for purchase of data cards for their students to ensure they can access these courses.
In the short term, the universities can promote the use of zero-rated access to education websites among their students. Several universities have already started collaborating with telecommunications companies to provide free online content. Strengthening the National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Africa is a long-term measure to address the issue of connectivity. However, this would also require that the students have access to a laptop or a smart phone to be able to access online content on these networks. The African NRENs are relatively weak, especially in West and Central Africa. Improved connectivity could be achieved through liaising with regional telecommunications companies (MTN, Orange, Airtel, Vodafone), WACREN, UbuntuNet Alliance, and GEANT-Africonnect.
Student financing. Since most countries in the region are low income, there is very limited scope for providing stimulus packages for educational needs, especially to students. With no classes, students who are expecting to graduate this year may do so with delays. The economic consequences of this pandemic will lead to shrunken job markets, closed businesses, and debt defaults. In the short term, national banks could consider extending the loan payment periods or canceling the debt depending on the socioeconomic status of the student or job availability. In the long term, public-private partnerships to provide affordable and quality tertiary education could contribute to a country’s economic growth.
There are many African students studying outside the continent, primarily in the US, Europe, or China. Their education may be self-financed or supported by scholarships or work on campus part-time. With significant travel restrictions imposed across borders, some of these students are stranded abroad. Some students, having lost their temporary jobs, have fewer financial means to sustain themselves. The incoming cohort of students (starting in September 2020) now face issues related to visa issuance. This looming uncertainty will lead to some students giving up their study abroad plans. For students who are already mid-way through their programs abroad, the universities should subsidize tuition and consider supporting students on a case-by-case basis. In the long-term, universities should develop sustainable resources for internationalization.
As mentioned, heavy reliance on student fees may either take the private tertiary education institutions to the brink of closure or lead to drastic expenditure cuts for public institutions. To continue their operations, universities should come up with a sustainable financing strategy. This can be achieved through mobilizing resources toward equitable enrollment, improving quality and relevance of programs, generating income through fundraising, or supplemental performance-based funding opportunities. Private institutions should also consider setting up university endowment funds or foundations. Examples of such university foundations in Africa are Ashesi University Foundation in Ghana, Makerere University Endowment Fund in Uganda, Fondation de l’Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin, and the Fondation Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal
Innovation and Research
Many African universities are continuing to innovate to produce resources that can help them navigate the crisis. For example, they are conducting research support for vaccine development and genomic sequencing of virus, developing models to track the spread of the virus, providing voluntary medical support, raising awareness about the importance of hygiene, and producing protective equipment and hand sanitizers. Such activities not only help generate funds but also support the local community by providing affordable protective gear. Governments and university leadership should provide additional funding for such interventions and fast-track procurement of required equipment and materials.
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