Cross Continental dialogues on higher education

European and South African universities draw solid lessons from their COVID-19 experience

Even though COVID-19 has wreaked unprecedented havoc on all aspects of life on earth, it has been a catalyst for solid lessons and opened up great opportunities for the higher education sector -- university leaders from Western Europe and in South Africa recently admitted. In applying these lessons, university leaders must not lose sight of the fundamental objectives of higher education, Professor Adam Habib said from Johannesburg.

At the recent webinar titled Cross-continental dialogues on Higher Education: How are universities coping with the COVID-19 crisis -- three leaders of universities in Western Europe, and three from South Africa's public institutions, shared their experiences for information-sharing and mutual learning.

They all shared a common view that COVID-19 had yielded some good outcomes.

Embrace blended learning but retain human interaction

Professor Adam Habib, out-going Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said shifting WITS' entire teaching programme online when only 12% of the academic programme had been constructed for online delivery, might have been traumatic. However, the emergency remote teaching experience had since triggered important reflections in his institution. "Why should we have large classes of a 1000 people if we can shift to online and other modes of learning?" COVID-19 had definitely presented opportunities to WITS, which included moving towards blended learning in the future.

From Germany, Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice-President of Freie Universität in Berlin, said drawing from the lessons learnt earlier in the year, they, from Fall (September), planned to do things in such a way that "we have as many courses as we can, in person. But for anything larger than over 40 students, we will stay in the distance learning environment." She said they might make an exception of Freshmen who had never set foot on their campus before, who somehow needed "to become members of the university campus family."

Also in support of blended learning for the future was Professor Marcel Tanner, President of the Academy of Sciences of Switzerland. As institutions prepared to continue in the blended learning mode when re-opening for the new academic year in September, they remained sensitive to the need for people to meet in small group discussions to cross-pollinate and learn from one another. "People must look into each other's eyes and not only into screens. The world does not change by looking into screens. It only changes when people are working together." These are the considerations they were bringing into planning for future teaching and learning.

"People must look into each other's eyes and not only into screens. The world does not change by looking into screens," said Professor Marcel Tanner, President of the Academy of Sciences of Switzerland.
Professor Marcel Tanner
"People must look into each other's eyes and not only into screens. The world does not change by looking into screens," said Professor Marcel Tanner, President of the Academy of Sciences of Switzerland.

At La Rochelle University in France, staff had continued working from home for the duration of the national lockdown. Professor Jean-Marc Ogier, the institution's President, who had also been in charge of the University's information technologies, ascribed this smooth transition to good administration systems.

As a result, he was observing significant mind shifts in both the academic and administrative staff. Professor Ogier said in France, previously, there had been widespread objection and resistance to distance teaching, in the teaching staff. Yet "after this lived experience, we can observe that a lot of them have opened up to going in this direction." The challenge, going forward, would be to manage this new desire; "to be sure that we can foster this distance learning system, and to be sure that it remains qualitative and that it retains consistency from a pedagogic point of view."

The same was true for administrative staff at La Rochelle University. "We're observing a desire in a lot of staff to work from home." Similarly, his concern in this regard was to manage this shift "to maintain the quality of public service."

Researchers are embracing inter- and multi-disciplinarity

From a research point of view, Professor Ogier said France was also seeing researchers adopting a more inter-disciplinary approach to their research. Instead of following the mono-disciplinary trend, scholars were warming up to a more systemic approach to solving societal problems. "This not something typical in France."

A similar change was also manifesting in Switzerland. Professor Marcel Tanner, who is also Head of the Expert Group in Public Health of the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force, said this task force brought together politicians and scientists from the universities to advise the Swiss government in this crisis. "We did not have one chief scientist; we had a group of scientists from economists to ethicists to biomedical scientists." He said the set trend of assembling people from a range of disciplines had filtered down into the university level and influenced a shift to multi-disciplinary research. "Instead of scholars referring to 'my project,' 'my question,' they are beginning to value partnerships that actually naturally seek to solve the problem. People are beginning to appreciate that solving problems is not just about understanding their specific fields but also the political and social context.

Visibly gratified by this development, Professor Tanner told the webinar audience that "I see we've influenced a learning and I hope that we can maintain this momentum".

Networking for societal impact is the way to go

From South Africa, Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape added that COVID-19 had stimulated remarkable collaboration within universities, among universities, between universities and other partners and across many boundaries.

Dr Thandi Mgwebi
Universities' partnerships with local communities for the co-creation of knowledge are becoming more critical as we go forward, said Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University.

Commending Science for its ability to build bridges through diplomacy, Dr Mgwebi said all scientific organisations were required to recognise the importance of contributing to society and co-creating knowledge with society. She said now that "public health and safety has become more of a priority than it was before," universities' partnerships with local communities for the co-creation of knowledge would be critical, going forward.

Universities' partnerships with local communities for the co-creation of knowledge are becoming more critical as we go forward, said Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University.

Professor Blechinger-Talcott, who is closely involved in UNA Europe, a network of eight European universities established in 2019 to create new innovative joint teaching formats across Europe and to create a European common research area, said COVID-19 had helped the university network to overcome impediments that had confronted their individual universities. "Digital teaching, which is one of the big innovative tasks in the UNA Europe network, has now become a natural thing of all the member universities."

Furthermore, Professor Blechinger-Talcott said the crisis had actually provided them with an opportunity to collaborate stronger across borders, across cultures, across languages and across disciplines. In her own words, she added: "we think this is the only way we can recover from the crisis and to build resilience in case there are potential future outbreaks."

Making sense of all of this, Professor Blechinger-Talcott said the future of universities lay in networks. Universities could not afford to fall back on their own national or local boundaries.

Professor Blechinger-Talcott
The future of universities lies in networks, said Professor Blechinger-Talcott, from Berlin.

We lost important learning opportunities before

Professor Marcel Tanner reminded the audience that universities had had many crises to learn from, in the past. "We just did not learn the lessons well from those crises. After Ebola, people circled around the world addressing seminars on lessons learnt. But when COVID-19 came, many people had forgotten the lessons we should have learnt at that time." While he put this down to human nature, he said he was not about to give up.

Dr Diane Parker
COVID-19 has undoubtedly forced a radical re-think on how we deliver higher education in South Africa, Dr Diane Parker, DDG: University Education at the DHET, said.

Echoing the sentiment on lost past opportunities to learn, Dr Linda Meyer, Director: Operations and Sector Support at USAf, said South Africa had had to contend with FeesMustFall and similar other crises; COVID-19 ought "not to have been a new challenge for us to embrace. It has, however, been a catalyst for us to start taking stock and prepare better for the future. There are many things we need to do differently."

The webinar moderator, Dr Diane Parker, who is the Deputy Director-General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training, said the challenges experienced during this pandemic "force us to re-think radically about how we deliver higher education in future in South Africa."

COVID-19 has undoubtedly forced a radical re-think on how we deliver higher education in South Africa, Dr Diane Parker, DDG: University Education at the DHET, said.

In summing these lessons up, Professor Habib said COVID-19 had had a fundamental impact on the character of Higher Education, both in this country, on the continent and across the globe. He said universities' collective efforts to address the COVID-19 challenges "are going to live with us for a long period of time. We've got to understand and mould that impact on higher education to achieve the objectives that we have, as people who work in the higher education system."

Professor Tanner said it was particularly important to now learn from these kinds of exchanges with different systems and cultures. The essence was not necessarily "how we do it in Cape Town or at WITS, in Berlin or wherever else...but that we learn together for mutual change."

His final words were: "let's not regard ourselves as living in First or Third worlds but only in one world. Only if we accept this can we really move 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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