African HE after COVID: The bane and the boon – University World News

Posted By on June 16, 2021


This article briefly notes some of the challenges and opportunities wrought by this pandemic on higher education in Africa. The pandemic has spared virtually no institution in the world. However, the impact on low-income countries as in most countries in Africa, where precarious institutions are prevalent has been rather severe.

Economies have been massively battered and the revenue bases of governments have sharply shrunk, forcing the redistribution of meagre resources to more urgent needs and sectors, such as agriculture, food security and COVID-19-related healthcare and, in the process, postponing or even cancelling commitments, for instance, to capital development, research and innovation and hiring staff, among others.

Universities across the continent have set up institution-wide task forces to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Some have participated in high-end research towards finding a cure for the virus. Many have attempted to shift to online teaching and learning through institutional, national, continental and international initiatives.


African higher education has recorded a massive growth in the past decade though the enrolment rate still remains among the lowest in the world under 10% on average, but 5% for most.

Notwithstanding the high rate of graduate unemployment and under-employment and, despite the low enrolment and graduation rates, the pandemic seriously impacts the already meagre production of human resources which are the key to social and economic advancement.

African higher education is still largely the exclusive pasture of public providers. Despite the anticipated difficulties ahead, the public institutions will eventually survive even thrive.

And yet, private providers may probably not be that lucky at least not in a short period of time. These institutions have been particularly hard hit as their survival is contingent upon income generated from enrolments.

Currently, private institutions are estimated to enrol 15% to 20% of students in Africa and thus play a vital role in expanding access, catering to critical needs, and also producing skilled labour.

Thus, ensuring the survival of these institutions through favourable policies with active regulatory frameworks is imperative. This may be particularly relevant to some countries, such as Ethiopia, where further expansion on the public purse may be nearly impossible in such an economic climate, at least in the foreseeable future.


Higher education in Africa has been known to be chronically dependent on foreign-generated resources, particularly in promoting research and doctoral studies.

A lot has been written on the impact of such massive dependency on external funders with all its manifestations. The immediate effect of this dependency may become more evident as resources may diminish from those benefactors, given their own economic woes.

This situation may help prompt African countries to raise research support to their institutions now that they have learned what it means to depend on external resources.

Many political and economic elites, who often relied on foreign medical services by way of medical tourism, have lived through a daunting sense of entrapment in the mediocre systems of their nations.

At the height of the pandemic, we witnessed a mob attack in Nigeria which dragged an official, in search of medical services overseas, out of an airport.

The pandemic, which triggered the closure of borders and restricted human travel to all, regardless of social, political or economic class, has brought about a new perspective in building robust institutions at home.

Thus, COVID-19, the great equaliser, may be a potent force to build stronger higher education institutions in Africa that will help confront current and future epidemics and pandemics. A bitter lesson has been learned as everyone stood for themselves in the face of the fatal assault of the pandemic.

Now, the critical role of such institutions in the life of a nation has been firmly established, beyond any doubt.

Mode of delivery

Numerous efforts have been under way in Africa to expand access to higher education through distance, online and virtual means, despite long-standing ambivalence attributed to quality, delivery and integrity.

On technical aspects, much of this effort has been hampered by poor telecommunications, unreliable power grids and high cost of equipment and data, among others.

We have, however, witnessed the scrambling of institutions to shift from contact to online learning following their closure due to the pandemic.

It should be noted that this transition has sparked controversy on the account of equity and exclusion where, in some countries such as South Africa, resistance against online education by students and staff has been recorded.

The growth of online delivery is such that it may become a more regular and more recognised practice in the post COVID-19 era. It may be that COVID-19 has contributed towards the normalisation of all non-physical, non face-to-face deliveries of higher education, to some extent.

Moreover, COVID-19 has triggered the need to build a robust communication and information infrastructure and promulgate policies both at institutional and country levels.

For instance, many African countries have successfully negotiated a zero-data scheme with phone and data service providers for educational institutions as they are now gearing up to a more robust electronic communication infrastructure.

Intellectual diaspora

The literature on academic mobility in the realm of brain drain has been exhaustive. Recently, however, the discourse in mobility is shifting from brain drain to brain circulation as advancements in information and communication technologies are making it significantly easier for migrants diasporas to engage more actively in matters in their home countries.

As distance and geographical spaces have become increasingly less relevant and institutions and countries are striving to primarily conduct academic affairs remotely, the intellectual diaspora are participating widely and proactively.

It is now commonplace to jointly organise conferences, seminars, workshops, publications, research, virtual viva voce and establish academic networks with intellectual diaspora on a wide range of academic, professional, and technical areas.

The role of the intellectual diaspora continues to grow precipitously as the conceptual architecture of the diaspora built on the concept of distance seems to be fizzling fast and their contributions are becoming increasingly prominent.

Public standing

Universities, especially those in Africa, have too often been maligned as ivory towers, indicating that they are aloof, unaccountable and disengaged from the interests of their communities.

African universities, especially, have been incessantly, unfairly and harshly attacked for not lifting the continent out of its cycle of poverty and economic deprivation as if they were the only players in the complex web of the development universe.

Following COVID-19, universities in many African countries have stepped up as frontline institutions in the fight against the pandemic in a more visible way.

They have been active in researching preventive and curative effort, advising the public and governments, producing consumables and preventive chemicals, designing and developing protective devices and kits, raising public awareness, serving as testing, quarantine and storage facilities, as well as organising philanthropic actions.

The surge in public relations capital, with robust implications for the perceptions of the general public and political leaders, is evident in the de-towerisation of African universities.

Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education in the University of KwaZulu-Natals school of education, South Africa. He is the founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa Durban and Boston, the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education, and a visiting fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. He is also the general editor, CESA African Higher Education Series, and the co-coordinator of the CESA-Higher Education Cluster. CESA is the Continental Education Strategy for Africa.

This commentary was initially published in the International Association of Universities magazine IAU Horizons. It was part of the In Focus section of volume 25.2 in which higher education leaders from around the world were sharing their perspectives on the topic: Imagining higher education in a post-pandemic world.

The Association of African Universities will be hosting its 15th general conference themed The Future of African Education from 5-8 July. Higher education stakeholders can register for the Association of African Universities general conference until 15 June.

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African HE after COVID: The bane and the boon - University World News

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