Restructuring African Universities post-COVID-19

By Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and Dr. Paul M. Okanda

COVID-19 has devastated and upended the world economy and healthcare systems and Universities across the globe have not been spared. The pandemic has posed enormous challenges and accelerated profound changes in higher education that were already underway. In response, universities need to change their priorities, operations, and service delivery, which affects their organizational structure and governance.

Seven key transformations are particularly pertinent: reduced resources, growing competition, the impact of the Fourth industrial revolution, the changing nature of jobs, shifts in university demographics, growing public demands on universities, and of course the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes in the Higher Education landscape

The reduction in resources is engendered by, and evident in, four main ways: first, declining government support, a phenomenon that started at the turn of the 1980s with the triumph of neo-liberalism, which manifested itself in Africa through draconian structural adjustment programs; second, student tuition pressures as universities adopted ‘cost sharing’ measures; third, increased competition for research grants and donations as the numbers of universities expanded and pressures for academic productivity intensified; and fourth, the persistent under-development of cultures of philanthropy for higher education institutions across Africa notwithstanding the explosion of high net-worth individuals.

Growing competition is manifest in the increasing number of tertiary institutions—public, private, and for-profit. The number of universities across the continent rose from 784 in 1999 to 1,682 in 2018. Also, globally there has been increased diversity of providers of higher education as major corporations, research agencies, and NGOs have entered the fray. Reinforcing the competitiveness in the sector is the rising importance of global and regional rankings, in which African universities generally do poorly. Rankings are increasingly critical for attracting high quality faculty, students, partnerships and resources.

The Fourth industrial revolution refers to the emergence of vast new information technologies and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life that blur lines between different spheres of specialization. It is leading to the obsolescence of some traditional academic fields and the rise of new ones. It is also facilitating changes and improvements in institutional business operations and processes, the development of new modalities of teaching and learning, and forcing more attention to be paid to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Extensive changes in the nature of jobs are taking place requiring continuous reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning. This is accompanied by the growing importance of careers in science, technology, engineering, healthcare, and the creative arts, as well as demand for hybrid hard and soft skills through interdisciplinary and experiential teaching and learning. According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020, the critical skills for jobs of the future include analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; complex problem solving; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality and initiative; leadership and social influence; technology use, monitoring and control; technology design and programing; resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.

Changing student demographics are apparent in four main ways. First, there are generational shifts in university constituencies from Baby Boomers to Generation X, Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, etc., each of which has its own learning expectations, demands, and styles. Second, there are growing pressures for diversity and inclusion in terms gender, class, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, political affiliation, and disability. Third, the changes in the nature jobs, career expectations, and need for lifelong learning increasingly make higher education necessary for different age groups not just those between 18 and 24. Fourth, there is growing internationalization progressively in both physical and virtual forms encompassing the mobility of people (students and faculty), academic programs, policy imitation, and institutional practices through inter-institutional partnerships within countries, and across regions and internationally.

Rising expectations for public service and engagement are marked by growing demands on universities to become active contributors to the public good and national development and competitiveness through technology and knowledge transfer. Further, there are greater expectations for collaboration between university researchers, think tanks, and policy makers to find solutions to pressing and long-term societal challenges. Also pressing is closing the mismatch between graduate skills and the needs of the economy through greater engagement between universities and employers. Finally, the trend towards private-public-partnerships is rising that enable universities to acquire much-needed resources from the public and private sectors and the latter to gain university resources in terms of research for value addition for their respective enterprises.

For its part, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of teaching and learning, operational processes and service delivery in universities. Consequently, it has intensified pressures for institutional structural transformation; demands on institutional capacities, efficiencies and resources especially with reference to human capital, technological infrastructures, and financial resources; and the production of biomedical and socioeconomic research to manage the multiple impacts of the pandemic and solve pressing societal problems and inform public policy.

Implications for institutional change

The changes identified above have implications on six key areas for universities in Africa and elsewhere: rethinking the nature of academic programs, delivery of teaching and learning, human resources, resource mobilization and utilization, institutional partnerships, and the nature of leadership skills.

Universities have to undertake systematic reviews of their academic programs that might require phasing out some existing academic programs and introducing new ones, and reforming the organizational structure of departments and schools. Changes in the credentialing economy as traditional degrees increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities losing their monopoly over certification with the emergence of alternative credentialing, require African universities to embrace innovative degree configurations, such as multidisciplinary majors and minors, combined Undergraduate and Graduate degrees, sandwich degrees involving industry practice, joint degrees with other institutions, and ‘micro-degrees’ and certifications. Students should be provided transcripts that combine curricular and co-curricular assessments through an e-portfolio system that is portable for life.

In terms of the delivery of teaching and learning, African universities have to develop an effective three-pronged system involving face-to-face, online, and blended teaching and learning in a modular way that gives students flexibility. Universities need to acquire the necessary technologies to support new forms of learning, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, learning and teaching aids, simulation platforms, mobile platforms, and platforms that support offline access.

All this has implications for human resources and therefore Universities need to undertake systematic reviews of their establishments and personnel to ensure they are fit-for-purpose. Also required are effective strategies for talent recruitment, retooling and retention of individuals that have the right skill sets.

In terms of resource mobilization and utilization, African universities should develop tuition pricing structures that are calibrated to meet the actual costs of delivering their menu of academic programs using the different forms of teaching and learning and delivery methods. Universities must also rump income generation capacities and commitments ranging from research grants, fundraising and donations, to private-public partnerships.

As for institutional partnerships, African universities ought to intensify their efforts towards forming partnerships with other universities locally, regionally and internationally, as well as key external players including government, industry, philanthropic organizations, international and intergovernmental agencies, and community based organizations. Moreover, they should establish centers of excellence in areas that promote the agendas derived from the changes identified above.

Finally, there is need to sharpen the leadership skills of university leaders at all levels from department heads and School or College Deans to Management Boards, Boards of Trustees, and University Councils. The areas include skills for financial acuity, cultural competency, technological deftness, crisis management, entrepreneurial mindset, political savviness, empathy and respect, multi-genre communication skills, high emotional intelligence, and agility. This necessitates the establishment of more and diverse higher education leadership development centers and opportunities across the continent which are currently sorely lacking.

The survival, stability, and sustainability of Higher Education Institutions demand that fundamental changes are made in institutional size, scope, programs, and governance. This entails reviewing the universities’ human, physical, and technological capacities and the associated institutional policies, processes, and practices.

This is administratively and politically taxing and demands extensive consultations and effective communication with multiple internal and external constituencies that often have different and divergent interests. COVID-19 has accelerated ongoing trends and underscored the transformative power of institutional business planning and continuity, investments in technological infrastructures and opportunities of the Fourth industrial revolution, and the imperatives of organizational resilience, nimbleness, flexibility and data-driven decision making.

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