The future of universities post-COVID-19 – UP co-hosts international THE online forum

Posted on April 06, 2020

The financial existential crises experienced at universities and the future funding of research in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown were the focus of an online forum organised by the Times Higher Education publication in partnership with the University of Pretoria (UP).

Entitled “The Southern Africa impact virtual forum: How are African universities responding to COVID-19?”, the forum was viewed by more than 300 people from over 50 countries, and entailed a discussion among senior academics from various universities.  

Universities all over the world have been closed due to COVID-19, and every aspect of society has been turned on its head. Locally, there has been great impetus among universities to get their course content online. Some tertiary institutions approached UP, which has more than 20 years expertise in online learning, for guidance. Also, some private providers of higher education have been running advertising campaigns for students to switch to their institutions as they offer online learning.

“This is a profoundly unsettling time when people are struggling under lockdown, isolated from their families and loved ones,” said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education, to the forum. “[Universities] are forced to dream up and rethink new business models as well as assessment models. Laboratories have been closed… new knowledge production is on hold.”

He stressed the important role that universities play in producing healthcare workers, being involved in data analysis and shaping public policy. “They are developing the medical equipment, tests and vaccines that will win the fight against this virus.”

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said universities are moving teaching, learning and research online. “We have negotiated with telecommunications companies to zero-rate data for teaching and learning. While COVID-19 has negative implications, this is a great opportunity to practise trans-disciplinary knowledge production. With regard to COVID-19, no single discipline can address the challenge.”

He added that the crisis has revealed “weaknesses in our economic, health and social systems”.

While these are trying and uncertain times, Prof Kupe sees this period as an opportunity for UP to lend its voice and expertise to make an impact in terms of research, and contribute to solving one of the complex problems of the world particularly during this time.


For Professor Max Bergman, chair of Social Research at the University of Basel in Switzerland, research funding could be affected in the aftermath of COVID-19. “Many people will consider high-level, excellent research as unaffordable.” This will disproportionately affect institutions that are considered excellent from a research perspective – the Natural Sciences and Humanities could be affected by defunding. There will also be a loss of researchers, partly due to migration.

There could also be funding with an agenda and opportunism: religious and philanthropic organisations, endowments and pro-government ideologies will have a “increasing role and voice in research agendas” Prof Bergman said.

He added that politics wields influence over what is funded. There could be more funding for applied research but there will be a “band aid approach... political decision-makers will try to catch up with public health, then will focus funding research into transmittable diseases and more government-friendly funding towards economic rebuilding”.

For Prof Bergman, there could be an expansion of private for-profit teaching universities that have international labels and are affordable, “which will compete with more conventional universities”.

Joanna Newman, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), said international co-operation and cross-border collaboration is essential in teaching and solving global challenges. In the current crisis, international networks such as those in the ACU “are more important than ever. A positive from COVID-19 is that universities had to adapt much more quickly to the online environment and we are all learning as we are going, and the next decade of students will benefit from that”.

Newman applauded Professor Adam Habib, outgoing Wits University Vice-Chancellor, for pushing the idea of distance master’s degrees and split-site PhDs as a way of building capacity and partnerships.

A case in point is a project which involves universities in Africa collaborating with the University of Edinburgh to create high-quality content. “We are training the trainers to deliver content online,” Newman said. More than 17 000 students have benefited. “This project is an example of regional collaboration and co-creating content that has a real ability to be scaled up to meet supply and demand. Particularly in a COVID-19 context, this has the potential to grow.”

Professor Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president of Kings College in London, said there are layers of inequality in the internationalisation of higher education. COVID-19 will create opportunities to test the quality of engagement of European and UK universities with their African partners. “You can count how many world-class universities have joint degree programmes with African universities.” A challenge is that world-class universities see themselves as building bridges and having partnerships with African universities, while protecting their rankings.  

There is a need for equal development of capacity with African universities. “Co-creation of content online and virtually is where things are going,” Prof Olonisakin said. She offered the example of Kings College’s collaboration with junior academics in China, the UK and more than five African universities, including UP, to co-create academic programmes and practise working on the same platform. This will lead to a joint PhD programme down the line.

Prof Olonisakin added that the next generation of academics should be allowed to develop quality programmes in their countries. “Exchange programmes will look different: if a student is in Pretoria and my students are there they should be able to sit on the same programme. We should be confident that they will earn the same degree of the same quality.” This is where the move towards technology will be an enabler, while participating universities should then share their platforms with others.

To listen to the full discussion, follow the link here.

- Author Prim Gower

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