Achieving Equitable Access to Higher Education post COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare existing inequalities in access to higher education in Africa. Prior to the pandemic, there were persistent challenges of access and equity due to factors such as gender disparities, social and cultural factors, family background, high poverty levels, disabilities, and other forms of marginalization. Only about 6% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in higher education institutions (Africa portal, 2020).
The sudden shift to online learning aggravated the challenge of equitable access to education by most learners. A minority of students in different parts of the continent faced poor internet infrastructure and access due to prohibiting costs and inadequate technical know-how. This raises the question of how the African Higher Education (HE) sector can ensure inclusivity during the current and future shocks.
It is against this backdrop that The Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) in collaboration with Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) held a joint webinar under the theme, “Achieving Equitable Access to Higher Education post COVID-19 Pandemic.” This was the second webinar in our webinar series on the effects of COVID-19 on higher education in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
Professor Stephen O. Odebero, from the Department of Education Planning and Management at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kenya, presented his study on “Achieving Equitable Access to Quality Higher Education Post COVID-19 Pandemic,” which was co-authored with Professor Elizabeth Kalunda, Dr Kellen Kiambati and Professor Timothy Oketch.
In his presentation, he outlined the Kenyan education sector’s response to COVID-19. "Like many other countries, Kenyan universities adopted virtual learning practices, which was a drastic change as many of them had been practicing face-to-face pedagogy up until the pandemic," said Prof Odebero. In addition, he highlighted that this switch to online learning brought to light the many challenges students face with availability and access to ICT infrastructure, such as laptops and smartphones.
With the COVID-19 pandemic being a new experience for everyone, there had been very little research on how universities experience disruptions like this, as well as the processes and policies in place to minimise these disruptions. Professor Odebero’s presentation highlighted some of the actions that had been taken to keep Kenyan students learning in the midst of a pandemic, as well as what more could be done.
While the Kenyan Ministry of Education put out a policy directive mandating the use of Open, Distance and eLearning (ODEL) across all universities, The Commission of University Education (CUE) was responsible for implementing any quality appraisal strategies for virtual learning. Unfortunately, this proved to be a challenge as CUE, like many other institutions, lacked any prior experience in implementing policies using online tools, as they had always done so strictly for in-person engagements.
One of the recommendations was that all Kenyan universities implement an Open, Distance and eLearning (ODEL) directorate to manage online teaching and learning as per the requirements from The Commission of University Education (CUE). Similarly, they recommend that firm policy directives must be introduced and enforced to shift all Kenyan Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to virtual teaching and learning.
Finally, for Higher Education financing, they recommended that this financing not only cover tuition, but it’s equally important that this financing covers the cost of smartphones, laptops, and other online tools students may need to fully participate in virtual learning.
In response to Professor Odebero’s presentation, Dr Clara Araba Mills Lecturer, Institute for Educational Planning and Administration, University of Cape Coast) discussed the gender imbalance amongst tertiary students, with female students being highly underrepresented, which in turn, results in fewer women at both the tertiary and management level. Dr Mills cited a 2021 study by Georgina Oduro et al., which revealed that although Ghanaian women make up 52% of the entire population, in the field of research and academia in Ghana, female representation is only 20-25%.
It is crucial that both men and women have equal access to (higher) education and are not hindered due to cultural or financial limitations. As Dr Mills put it, “society stands more opportunity for economic and social growth if the space is opened up for more to access higher education.”
Mr Krish Chetty, a Research Manager at Inclusive Economic Development Division, Human Science Research Council) research focuses on the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), he highlighted the varied experiences across these countries in response to the pandemic.
For countries like Russia and China where most young people grow up with technology, they already have the experience using digital tools, as well as the access to these tools as well. For these countries, they have not had to grapple with the issue of pedagogical quality as much as countries like Kenya or Ghana, as they already have a strong foundation due to easy access to technology.
For most African countries, Mr Chetty says, “when we use technology, it’s more of a novelty.” We have not quite figured out how to use technology, particularly for online learning, in the best way possible. We continue to grapple with how to exchange communication in a meaningful way. Rather than interacting meaningfully with students and ensuring they understand the content being shared, information is just pushed out to them online, in the hopes that they understand. For Mr Chetty, this is not quality online learning, but rather “emergency remote teaching.”
To properly address the issue of quality, the issue of access must be tackled first. It is not realistic to assume that all students have the same amount of exposure/experience to technology and online learning, so that in itself must also be addressed. If students are not comfortable using these online tools, they are not going to be able to learn effectively.
Professor Tristan McCowan from International Education of the Institute of Education, University College London highlights two big areas of equitable access that are worth keeping in mind; getting into the system and what happens after you get into the system. A lot of the time, he says, we place importance on getting into the system, not really paying attention to what happens after that.
While the global access rates to education continue to rise, there is still the issue of ensuring equity once people are in the system. Prof McCowan attributes the difficulties in these systems to the issues of availability and accessibility, which go hand in hand. He also discusses the idea of “horizontality,” which refers to how equitable the spread of institutions is.
Indeed, we may have more non-traditional groups gaining access to universities, but these may be poorly resourced universities. As a result, these students graduate from these universities, and are unable to secure decent jobs due to their university’s “bad name.” Horizontality also demands the consistency in quality across the various institutions. While different institutions may have varied missions, it is important that there is still high quality across board.
The issues Professor Odebero highlighted in his presentation are not unique to Kenya. Dr Mills also spoke about the issue of connectivity for both students and staff at The University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Although the staff were given training for online teaching, there was still the issue of adapting to technology-based teaching.
It was challenging for teaching staff to engage meaningfully with the students online, as their approach to online teaching largely involved just sharing of slides. Unlike with the staff, students[MO1] were not offered any training, so those with limited knowledge and experience of technology found themselves at a great loss.
Mr Chetty also discussed the parallels between Ghana/Kenya and India/South Africa, where there was also the big issue of digital inequality when universities had to switch to online teaching and learning. He described coming to university as the “equalizer,” where students from all backgrounds can attend the same universities and get equal access to quality education.
However, when the pandemic hit, students were sent back to their homes, and the cracks began to show. While some students had easy access to technology and resources, some students had to grapple with their limited resources, broken infrastructure, and cultural limitations.
Mr Chetty described the Indian context where girls were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. For them, they had even more limited access to technology due to some cultural taboos. With that in mind, he asked, “how do we design programmes that deal with that sort of thing [cultural taboos and contexts.]” If not, some students may continue to receive the short end of the stick due to their cultural backgrounds and settings.
Professor McCowan emphasised how difficult online teaching is, as it requires a tremendous amount of thought, skill, and time. It is very easy to put out all the content online for students to consume however they choose to, but curating a learning environment, especially online, that encourages deliberation, critical reflection and engagement from students requires a whole lot more.
While COVID-19 didn’t create these already existing inequalities, the pandemic (and its aftermath) exposed them. It is crucial that more improved structures are put in place to ensure that students all over are able to receive quality education.