Cross Continental dialogues on higher education

Whether located in Europe or Africa, universities can collaborate to solve global problems

There are some parallels and stark differences in the challenges that universities in the global North and the global South have encountered with the COVID-19 crisis. This was revealed in recent discussions between three leaders of universities in Western Europe, and three from South Africa's public institutions. The six leaders formed a panel in a webinar titled Cross-continental dialogues on Higher Education: How are universities coping with the COVID-19 crisis?

The webinar, held on 24 June, 2020, was the first in a series of conversations aimed at sharing experiences on how universities had managed continuity in teaching and learning, research and engagements amidst the pandemic. The panellists were also sharing lessons learnt along the way and how they intended to take the academic project forward.

Three members of the panel, from Western Europe
Three members of the panel, from Western Europe, were (from left): Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice-President, UNA Europe and Freie Universität, Berlin, in Germany; Professor Jean-Marc Ogier, President of La Rochelle University in France and Professor Marcel Tanner, President of the Academy of Sciences of Switzerland.

Emergency teaching was being implemented in deep inequalities in South Africa

While universities across the world had resorted to digitally based emergency teaching and learning as a response to the pandemic, Professor Adam Habib, out-going Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, argued that the environment of deep inequalities in which South Africa had deployed emergency remote learning would be of particular interest to this cross-continental debate.

Dr Linda Meyer
Once evacuated from campuses, many students had lost free access to computers, wifi and library resources, said Dr Linda Meyer, Director Operations and Sector Support at USAf.

From Dr Linda Meyer, Director: Operations and Sector Support at Universities South Africa (USAf -- the representative association of South Africa's 26 public universities), the audience heard that South Africa's higher education ecosystem mirrored the vast inequalities of the South African society and that in the response to COVID-19, three categories of universities had emerged: a) those who were relatively prepared for the multi-modal emergency teaching intervention and which, for that reason, continued to be largely functional during the crisis; b) the semi-functional and c) those with very little ability to adapt to the new learning modality and, by implication, displayed limited functionality during the crisis.

Once evacuated from campuses, many students had lost free access to computers, wifi and library resources, said Dr Linda Meyer, Director Operations and Sector Support at USAf.

As USAf coordinated engagements in support of the sector, it had been confronted, especially in the historically disadvantaged institutions, by infrastructure challenges, limited financial resourcing and limited exposure to multi-modal teaching in the academic staff in these institutions. Infrastructure challenges as they pertained to lack of learning devices, electricity and internet connectivity were significant impediments to learning for students of meagre socio-economic means. Having been removed from campuses, many students had lost their free wifi access on campuses and had no library access whatsoever.

European institutions experienced their fair share of social inequality

As it turned out, European universities had also experienced a degree of social inequality. Professor Jean-Marc Ogier, President at La Rochelle University in France, reported that a lot of students at his institution had no access to appropriate devices necessary for digital learning. The university had intervened by lending laptops to students and requesting companies around the city of La Rochelle to donate old and decommissioned laptops. La Rochelle University had to upgrade these devices' technical capabilities to enable hi-tech learning.

A lot of students had no access to a digital device for following their classes," said Professor Jean-Marc Ogier, President at La Rochelle University in France. "We took some original initiatives, some of which consisted of lending them laptops and requesting companies around La Rochelle to give us old laptops that they were giving to Euro City to lend to the students."
Professor Jean-Marc Ogier
A lot of students had no access to a digital device for following their classes," said Professor Jean-Marc Ogier, President at La Rochelle University in France. "We took some original initiatives, some of which consisted of lending them laptops and requesting companies around La Rochelle to give us old laptops that they were giving to Euro City to lend to the students."

While Germany had students from wealthier backgrounds who could easily adjust to the digital teaching environment, Freie Universität, in Berlin, had to contend with a cohort dependant on university-provided computer infrastructure and internet services. When campuses closed for the lockdown, these students had only mobile phones at their disposal, with limited internet coverage. "So we had to find a way around that," Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice-President at Freie Universität stated.

At institutions in Switzerland, even though there was no problem of electricity connectivity, Professor Marcel Tanner, President of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, said universities had underestimated the question of students living in overcrowded homes with children who could not be taken to kindergarten as day-care services were closed. Such students were locked in untenable situations where studying was rendered impossible. "This social influence was very much neglected," Professor Tanner said.

What did emerge as a difference was the degree of inequality in European universities. For example, European institutions did not mention any paralysis of under-resourced institutions from COVID-19. Unlike in South Africa, once the challenge of devices was resolved in European universities, all students could resume online learning. Besides, as at 24 June (the day of this webinar), the European universities were already welcoming students back on campuses, whereas many students in the South African environment - still unable to access digital teaching - looked to be invited back to campuses later in the year to catch up.

As a result, while European institutions were completing the current academic year smoothly, a small minority in South African institutions was assured of completing the 2020 academic year by December 2020. More of South Africa's institutions were faced with a possibility of an extended 2020 academic year and, by implication, a start delayed by up to three months in 2021.

Major differences lay in the degree of preparedness to online learning

In contrast to their South African counterparts, universities in Europe seemed to have been far better prepared for digital learning. In Germany, where the summer term was scheduled to start in mid-April, COVID-19 had hit in mid-March, allowing universities four weeks to prepare. Although Freie Universität experienced one week's delay into their summer term, "we could indeed offer 90% of the courses in our course catalogue, digitally," Professor Blechinger-Talcott said. The 10% variance resulted from an inability to resume lab-based courses right away. Otherwise, Freie Universität had enjoyed a fully functional digital semester.

"We could offer 90% of the courses in our course catalogue, digitally," said Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice-President at Freie Universität in Berlin.
Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott
"We could offer 90% of the courses in our course catalogue, digitally," said Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice-President at Freie Universität in Berlin.

Switzerland was no different. "We really had everything in place when lockdown came, so we could really switch to online teaching," Professor Marcel Tanner explained. "Blended teaching was in place, particularly when you look at the Federal University in Lausanne with the MOOCs [massive open online sources] and everything, so basically...the change to online teaching was not too difficult."

The same could not be said of France, though. French universities were given only three days' notice from 16 March, to shut down campuses. So, according to Professor Ogier of La Rochelle University, the switch to distance teaching and learning in only three days had posed a major challenge to his academic staff. La Rochelle University had weathered the storm, nonetheless, and, like other institutions in Europe, was able to complete the summer academic programme.

Professor Adam Habib
"Even though only 12% of our teaching programme was organised for online delivery, we had to shift our entire teaching programme online within a space of three weeks," said Professor Adam Habib, out-going Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

This level of preparedness for online teaching in European institutions was in stark contrast to that of their South African counterparts. Taking WITS as an example, Professor Habib said, first of all, he could not call theirs online teaching, "because, to be honest, our programmes were not pedagogically constructed to be online." Even though WITS had been experimenting with online education for about five to six years to date, Professor Habib admitted that only about 12% of WITS' teaching programme was really organised to be online. Yet they had to shift their entire teaching programme online within the space of three weeks, between the middle of March to 20 April. On 24 June, WITS was in the middle of end-of-semester exams.

"Even though only 12% of our teaching programme was organised for online delivery, we had to shift our entire teaching programme online within a space of three weeks," said Professor Adam Habib, out-going Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Speaking for more institutions in the SA system, Dr Meyer added that contrary to popular belief, academic staff at the majority of USAf's member institutions had not had extensive exposure to multi-modal teaching, prior to COVID-19. This was with the exception of institutions such as the University of Cape Town, for example, and WITS, which are in the MOOC domain. Dr Meyer added that capacitating faculty in online teaching was not a quick-fix, overnight solution. That is why the emergency remote teaching solution had raised concerns around quality assurance, continuous assessment and other issues, which USAf had raised with the relevant regulatory bodies.

Other common cross-continental challenges

Beyond the challenge of devices in primarily undergraduate students, both European and South African institutions had had to contend with the stagnation of laboratory-based research - on account of social distancing restrictions. On both continents, universities had deployed skeleton staff to maintain delicate research infrastructure. This had included moving or feeding animals kept for research. French and German universities also reported seeing a negative impact on doctoral students, whose many programmes had to be prolonged on account of the loss of research time at the peak of their countries' lockdown.

Some international students who had gone back to their home countries at the start of lockdown had later faced difficulty returning to their study bases following the universal closure of international borders. While some could resume study digitally from their home countries, others continued to experience difficulty connecting to study sites from remote locations.

In South Africa, where the economic decline was already visible prior to 2020, the COVID-19 crisis had seen many companies shutting down. By June 2020, the unemployment rate had risen from 27% to over 30% -- raising questions on the absorption capacity of the labour market to the graduates of 2020. Already, there were concerns on whether the Class of 2020 would meet the rigorous market demands - having completed their qualifications in the trying conditions of COVID-19. "COVID-19 has triggered a radical financial uncertainty within institutions," USAf's Dr Linda Meyer said.

Similarly in France, where La Rochelle University had a lot of formal research collaboration contracts with companies, the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 had negatively impacted research and innovation, so "the ability of our Faculty to work closely with industry for research and innovation might be strongly affected," Professor Jean-Marc Ogier stated.

COVID-19 raises a unique gender-based challenge

A gender-based challenge that appeared to be unique to Freie Universität, in Berlin was a reduction in the number of research manuscripts from female scholars in peer-reviewed journals - as a result of COVID-19. Associating this with reduced day-care services for children, Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott said it was apparent that female scholars had shifted their attention from research to the care of their own children for the duration of lockdown. "We see that gender equality is an issue that will keep us busy in the next months to come," Professor Blechinger-Talcott said.

Social justice interventions not unique to South African universities

The webinar heard of the interventions that South African universities had had to implement to accommodate less privileged students.

For WITS, this had entailed procuring 5000 learning devices for about 15% of their students and distributing these to the home locations of all the students in partnership with the South African Postal Services. WITS had also negotiated 10 gigabytes of anytime data and 20 gigabytes of night-time data from mobile service providers to enable connectivity for its students. The university had also extended their academic calendar to accommodate the students who had struggled to connect digitally, to catch up in one way or other later and complete the 2020 academic year.

Similarly, Nelson Mandela University had developed two main pathways for learning: Pathway One for students who could access teaching material digitally and keep up with continuous assessments from home; and Pathway Two for the vulnerable cohort of students, who were being invited back to residences in controlled numbers to study from campus facilities. Like other institutions, Nelson Mandela University was also providing data to students as a subsidy to enable them to maintain learning in the multi-modal teaching mode.

These social interventions were not unique to South Africa.

La Rochelle University had to assist a sizeable number of international students who needed to work while studying but had lost their jobs during this crisis. The university had to give them some money to survive. La Rochelle University had also taken to phoning each of their undergraduate students to understand how they were copying, academically, health-wise and socially. This way, the university could identify aspects to pay more attention to, to support their students and prevent them from abandoning their studies.

Dr Thandi Mgwebi
"We developed pathways for students - need I mention the challenges we have in terms of socio-economic gaps within our system -- which brings in the problem of students who are not able to access learning using online tools," Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, explained to the webinar audience.

Furthermore, in France, most students were being paid to do their PhDs as they were confined to their institutions for the duration of their studies. "Now we have to find the money for those whose programmes have been negatively impacted by this pandemic," said Professor Ogier.

Switzerland faced a similar challenge. However, Professor Marcel Tanner proudly shared that the Swiss National Science Foundation had taken the lead in establishing a fund to pay student stipends, setting an example for major other foundations.

Transnational challenges require global solutions

What Professor Adam Habib gleaned from all of this was that "all of our challenges are global.. Whether it is climate change, renewable energy, inequality or social or political polarisation, these are transnational challenges of our time." He said the world needed "great science, world-class science, but local understanding to enable these things to be addressed." These observations had enormous implications for higher education, he added.

Professor Habib expressed serious reservations on the traditional model of global higher education, which he said tended to identify talented people in the developing world; offer them scholarships and take them to Western Europe and the United States for training. "What that does is to undermine human resources capacity," the WITS Vice-Chancellor pointed out, arguing that when talent exported to the West did not return, it accelerated brain drain from the developing world. "Here's the challenge: if we do not stem the brain drain; if we do not address the human resource capacity of our world, we will never be able to address the global challenges in local contexts. And the next time we have an Ebola, or one of the other global pandemics, we will not be able to address it at its source. That makes our world and the global community vulnerable."

Professor Habib advocated for a new model of higher education partnerships that are institutionally-grounded. For solutions, he suggested joint courses, joint training, split-site scholarships; a complete re-imagination of higher education. "That's what I think we need to start talking about, globally," he said.

Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University added joint appointments to the list, further suggesting that these might well present a brilliant opportunity for the internationalisation of Higher Education.

Sharing lessons from especially UNA Europe, the network of eight European universities, Professor Blechinger-Talcott said just as COVID-19 had propelled innovation in digital teaching in their network, it could influence how universities conducted international relations and cooperation by strengthening scholarly mobility with scholarly connectivity. While their network would continue with physical student mobility, they were now considering three models of virtual mobility:

Professor Marcel Tanner
"Partnerships should never be about somebody helping the other," Professor Marcel Tanner (left), President of the Academy of Science of Switzerland, who had worked extensively in Africa and Asia, advised. "You are together in the same boat, so you have to learn together to change."

Drawing from his extensive mobility in Africa and Asia, and also from his many years of university professorship, Professor Marcel Tanner urged universities to ground partnerships on a principle of mutual learning for change. He said partnerships should never be about "somebody helping the other. You are together in the same boat, so you have to learn together to change." He believed that university networks started with and were about solving common problems. So the basic principle was to learn, not only by doing science but also by trying to apply knowledge in, for instance, fighting a crisis. These were the principles he had applied in the fight against a cholera epidemic in Tanzania in 1977 and subsequent episodes of malaria, SARS-1 and Ebola epidemics.

"Partnerships should never be about somebody helping the other," Professor Marcel Tanner (left), President of the Academy of Science of Switzerland, who had worked extensively in Africa and Asia, advised. "You are together in the same boat, so you have to learn together to change."

As he encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to collaborative problem-solving projects, Professor Tanner also discouraged reference to certain universities as just teaching universities and associating others with applied science. "This is all very natural if you're working from innovation to application." He said inter-university networks must grow by having many of these knowledge application projects. "This is how, together, we can overcome very difficult challenges. Through partnerships, we can also mobilise resources to construct these networks of mutual learning," he thus concluded his input at this webinar.

In closing, Dr Mgwebi said this was a time when innovative and flexible models of partnership would flourish. Adding her voice, Dr Meyer suggested that in pursuit of this collaboration, universities needed to focus on enabling legislative frameworks, foregrounding social justice in their discourse; basing decisions in data analytics and, ultimately, seeking platforms with potential to elevate entire systems.

In Professor Habib's opinion, none of this was feasible without money. "We can talk about social justice as much as we want, but if we do not figure out a way to finance this and confront the hard trade-offs that we need to make it happen, we're going to be in serious trouble."

While Professor Blechinger-Talcott concurred with the viewpoint on funding, she emphasised "concrete projects and what we need to do together." In addition to student mobility, she championed joint strategies for universities' sustainability and governance.

In closing, Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director-General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training - in her capacity as this webinar moderator, said that COVID-19 was not just a blip on the horizon. Instead, it was forcing the university sector to change "how we view Higher Education; how we do things" and even how the sector would take these dialogues forward.

The cross-continental dialogues are a project of the Departments of Higher Education and Training and Science and Innovation, in partnership with the embassies, in South Africa, of Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. The webinar of 24 June attracted an audience of 290.

Written by 'Mateboho Green, Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.

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