By: Chen Huang, Independent Consultant & Riche-Mike Wellington, Chief Programme Specialist, Ghana Commission for UNESCO
With the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution and constant technological advancement in the 21st Century, higher education has witnessed a new wave of possibilities as digital transformation expands to uncharted territories of human society. Since 2020, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the global trends of digital transformation in the field of higher education. In Beyond Limits: New Ways to Reinvent Higher Education, published by UNESCO during the third World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022), it was forecasted that in the coming decade, higher education would gradually integrate into a new ecosystem in synergy with other educational phases. In such an ecosystem, technological advances will be an essential medium for stakeholder empowerment, and the digital transformation of university teachers’ capacity will serve as a priority agenda to improve education quality. UNESCO has actively advocated and dedicatedly participated in a miscellanea of global programmes and initiatives, such as the ICT Competency Framework for Teachers and Digital Learning Week, to leverage Information Communication and Technology (ICT) to facilitate the digital transformation of education for the better. As the only UN specialised agency that has a mandate in higher education (UNESCO, 2022b) and an organisation that takes Africa as one of its working priorities, UNESCO is taking a big move toward promoting the regional digital transformation process among African colleges and universities. In Reimagined Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education jointly published by the Ethiopian government and UNESCO, universities remained the focus in the futures of education through support in scientific research and contributing to partnerships with other global and local education institutions (UNESCO, 2021a). In the newly-published Operational Strategy for Priority Africa 2022-2029 (Operational Strategy), Campus Africa becomes a flagship programme to ‘build integrated, inclusive, and quality tertiary education systems and institutions for the development of inclusive and equitable societies on the Continent’ (UNESCO, 2022b). UNESCO and its partner institutions are also playing important roles in the digital transformation of African higher education. The China Funds-in-Trust is another notable example of global partnerships coordinated by UNESCO since 2012. The aim has been to cultivate professional and innovative workforce in Africa’s higher technical education by leveraging STEM disciplines and technology advances with a total budget of 750+ million USD donated by People’s Republic of China.
With all the leadership and commitments from UNESCO and its agencies in promoting digital transformation in Africa, the buy-in of African governments and policymakers is crucial to implementing and sustaining this important UNESCO-led higher education digital transformation agenda. For instance, UNESCO’s Operational Strategy for Priority Africa (2022-2029) emphasizes Member States’ involvement in the implementation of the Strategy, while its flagship programme ‘Campus Africa’ clearly indicates that ministries of education and policymakers are two of the programme’s direct beneficiaries.
Current literature on the progress of digital transformation in Africa presents gaps in its implementation, even though there have been significant strides in the digitalisation agenda to connect African colleges and universities for improved learning, research collaboration and access to global scientific resources. This article identifies some of the gaps in the Africa digital transformation agenda and proffers solutions to how policymakers could capitalise on these technologies for holistic socio-economic progress of the Continent.
Identified Gaps in Africa’s Higher Education Digital Transformation Agenda
· Impractical policies that lack relevance or continuity
Higher Education Institutions face the challenge of rapidly changing national and international policies, political instabilities and restrictive practices that impose rigid rules, thereby restricting the implementation of digital transformation plans (IBIMA Conference 2017). Few months to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities (IAU) published an important report on ‘Higher Education in the Digital Era’. The report contained results from global consultation of 1039 public and private Higher Education Institutions of which 21 per cent were from Africa. The report revealed among other findings that only 16 per cent of respondents found national regulatory policies supportive of higher education transformation in the digital era. Policy gaps such as response plans that do not take local needs or conditions into consideration; or strategic planning papers that are short of long-term vision or common grounds are hindrances to Africa’s digital transformation agenda. The lack of relevant data has ‘hypnotised’ policymakers and governments in low- and middle-income countries, including some African countries, to develop quality and visionary policies. (UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, OECD, 2022; World Bank, 2021). Interestingly, policies tailored to connecting African Higher Education Institutions (HEI) for improved learning, research collaboration, and access to global scientific resources have been on national and international development agendas for many years but have not been able to achieve top-priority considerations (World Bank, 2021).
· Inadequate Infrastructure, Capacity and Resources for the Digital Transformation Process
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed widespread differences and inequalities in many African countries in terms of the capacity to redefine teaching and learning from traditional brick-and-mortar settings to technologically induced platforms. Higher Education Institutions (HEI) were compelled to embrace distance teaching and learning methods with limited resources. Issues related to the high cost of internet bandwidth, the capacity to translate teaching and learning materials into digitally friendly, bite-size modes for easy comprehension were some of the challenges Higher Education Institutions had to grapple with. Additionally, inadequate budget for education and research in science and technology, and quality professional development opportunities for university teachers has also posed a major challenge for HEI. According to the UNESCO 2021 Science Report, Africa invests as low as 0.59% of its GDP in research and development, compared to an average of 1.79% worldwide. Furthermore, Africa’s scientific output is the fastest growing in the world but generates less than 1% of global research. (UNESCO, 2022b; UNESCO, 2021b).
· Lack of coordination and quality assurance mechanisms
The development of structured national and regional levels of quality assurance mechanisms in African Higher Education institutions are quite recent. Most countries are constrained by the high cost and limited human capacity in rendering quality assurance services to HEI. This constraint is further exacerbated by the lack of harmonized strategies and tools required to compare qualifications across the Africa region. Additionally, the inadequate administrative and functional system required to efficiently organize capacity-building activities among stakeholders, and a solid government-led structure for strengthening student mobility and inter-university cooperation places a dent in the quality of academic work. In addition, the increasing number of applicants entering higher education institutions vis-a-vis the limited resources to quality assure the process is a bane to Africa’s HEI. (UNESCO, 2023; UNESCO, 2022b; UNESCO, 2019). In the era of digital transformation in higher education, traditional methods of quality assurance must give way to technologically advanced methods to expedite the process while maintaining quality and relevance at all levels. This requires systemic changes to quality assurance practices in the era of digital transformation.
To address these gaps, governments and policymakers are encouraged to adopt the following actions taking into consideration the local contexts and needs.
· Reach cross-partisan agreement on higher education policies and integrate relevant usage of advanced technologies: Policy continuity is a long, yet essential factor in the successful execution of higher education digital transformation. It is suggested that policymakers are made aware of the potential impact of political alternation by adopting bottom-up strategies and focusing on local needs for education technology.
· Invest in education smartly and sustainably with suitable and sufficient technological resources to improve the quality and equity of higher education digital transformation: In the context of limited budget for education in many developing African countries, resorting to open education resources available on the Internet can be a feasible plan to catch up with highly developed and-digitalized education systems. Furthermore, capacity building for teachers and researchers is no less important, if not more, than a functioning ICT infrastructure or hardware supplies in the pursuit of digital transformation agenda.
· Create an efficient, transparent operating system or platform for partnership and network at institutional, national, or international levels: It is widely acknowledged that well-coordinated collaboration and partnerships often bring mutual benefits to relevant actors. The UNESCO Operational Strategy for Priority Africa also aim to propose a clear strategy of partnership, calling for the co-creation of education resources among different African governments and institutions along with UNESCO Secretariat, National Commissions, and partners in Member States. Developing contextualized platforms is a starting point to Africans taking ownership of their development and aligning policies and practices that are relevant to the Continent’s socio-economic progress.
· Adapt multilateral and multidisciplinary vision in strategic planning in joint effort with initiatives or programmes in other relevant fields: The challenges that African Higher Education faces are surprisingly diverse while too sophisticatedly intertwined to be simply defined as a ‘technology problem’, such as boosting demography and limited cultural representation. However, some of these challenges can transfer into opportunities in synergy with efforts in various fields; the surge in population, for example, can be attuned to a wealth of qualified workforce along with education investment. Africa’s youthful population is its asset, and it is important that the right education and skills are inculcated in them towards ‘The Africa We Want’.
Africa Higher Education transformation agenda requires the collective effort of all stakeholders to be intentional about policy initiatives and practices that will make African HEI attractive and competitive. This is imperative if Africa is to develop the manpower needs of the Continent for socio-economic development. This is a call to action for African governments and policymakers to take the under listed points to consideration when aiming at advancing digital transformation for higher education at the national or regional level:
· A visionary, feasible, well-coordinated and applicable policy or coordination mechanism can make a big change to the development of the Higher Education digital transformation agenda, especially when it is combined with an open mind to challenges.
· ICT can be an impactful leverage to the Higher Education digital transformation with advanced digital infrastructure or assorted technological resources, but the nature and essence of the transformation process still lay on education itself, as accurate decision-making should be accredited to evidence-based observation of local needs.
· The technologically empowered human, such as teachers, students, and policymakers, can be a significant factor in Higher Education digital transformation because they are not only capable of technical issues, but also possess the flexibility to communicate, collaborate, and reflect in the ever-changing digital era.
1. Zeleza, P. T., & Okanda, P. M. (2021). Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: Covid-19 as Accelerator. Journal of Higher Education in Africa / Revue de l’enseignement Supérieur En Afrique, 19(1), 1–28. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48645900
2. CHIVUNGA, M., & TEMPEST, A. (2021). Digital Disruption in Africa: Mapping Innovations for the AfCFTA in Post-COVID Times. South African Institute of International Affairs. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28288