How students in Africa are handling the coronavirus outbreak

PhD student Wycliffe Osabwa states that many universities in Africa are struggling to provide online education for students 

April 16 2020
african sunrise

The coronavirus outbreak has been a wake-up call for many countries on how they deliver their education. And it has presented particular challenges for most sub-Saharan African countries where higher education has long operated under the traditional classroom model, owing to limited online resources.

So far a small number of privately run universities have tried to use virtual delivery modes. But most universities are public institutions with shoestring budgets – mostly from government funding and a little revenue from a few Income Generating Units (IGUs).

The financial constraints have made it harder for institutions to create virtual educational platforms for all students in all colleges and all regions. Universities are therefore localised, and anyone aspiring to study must attend campus.

A small number of students have engaged in independent study by reading ebooks and other online materials, but they do this within colleges where free internet and reliable power is provided. Their efforts are therefore supplementary to classroom learning experiences as opposed to being exclusive, alternative modes of learning.

The challenges facing Africa’s higher education sector are attributed to poor governance. 

As Covid-19 demands social distancing, most universities in sub-Saharan Africa have completely closed down, together with primary and secondary schools. Very little is going on in terms of engaging the students while they are at home.


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There are a few digital schools and other virtual platforms where students can interact with their lecturers. But most students, especially at public universities, come from families that survive on £1 per day. Some cannot afford internet charges and therefore are not connected. Remote delivery modes are consequently out of the question as they serve only a limited population of students.

On a personal level, my study calendar has been thrown off-balance. I have just received a report from my college that I must make some minor adjustment on my research topic before I am allowed to embark on fieldwork.

While my college has allowed postgraduate students to engage with their supervisors online, I won’t be able to make progress as I must be cleared by the national agency concerned. Unfortunately, most staff have taken leave, and the few available are dealing with essential administrative services.

On a positive note, my region is well covered with internet services and I can afford the charges. Therefore I am able to read around my research problem and prepare well for the study.

One problem, however, is the general anxiety in the air. We are seeing how countries such as Italy, Spain and America are being hit. In Africa, the number of infected cases is rising. The government is holding press conferences on a daily basis.

The anxiety and fear are unsettling and affect people’s ability to concentrate on anything, let alone study. I can confidently say that this state of heightened tension and uncertainty has gripped everyone, and education is starting to slip down the list of priorities. Everyone is thinking about their safety: food, transport, healthcare and such.

Amid all this pessimism, one truism stands: the world will never be the same again because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Similarly, education will have to change in terms of its modes of delivery. Africa, like any other continent, must rethink alternatives to the traditional classroom. She must prioritise this, for other world civilisations are already moving forward – working to improve their already adapted solutions. 

Read more: Your student experience is on hold; career development doesn’t have to be

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