Reopening Schools in Africa, Staying Ahead of the Curve and Unresolved Questions

Published on 29th September 2020

The Curve of Reckoning

Flattening curves, resurgence, and models have been part of our daily vocabulary of late, thanks to COVID-19. Going by the current reported mean case fatality rate of about 2% and mean recovery rate of above 80%, Africa’s COVID-19 curve has been well ahead of the global average in terms of better performance. Africa’s curve of education, however, tells a diametrically different story. The evident cross-generational divide in skills, experience, and digital fluency introduces brand new perspectives on how Africa’s education sector should empower youth while retaining old experts as well. 

If this year’s September 25th events at the first virtual graduation ceremony of the University of Nairobi are anything to go by, then dialogue on age-differentiated productivity in the academia, skills retention policy, retirement policy, digital literacy, data-driven decision support, and post-pandemic resilience will always rise to the top of Africa’s pertinent education sector priorities. The speeches by the country’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi provided key points of reference for directing the relevant discourse. 

The post-pandemic labour market must confront the key forces of data-driven digital revolution amidst the inescapable currents of change and generational succession. Education and future work ethics must be alive to the different contexts that have shaped the worldviews of different generations, right from the so-called Lost Generation of the late 1880s, the Silent Generation of the 1920s, Baby Boomers of the post-war optimism era, Generation X of the cold war and PC era, Generation Y (the millennials), Generation Z (digital natives), and the new Generation Alpha. As COVID-19, technology, and the Internet conspired to drive a new training service delivery paradigm, Education 4.0 gained visibility as part of Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It remains a key point of curiosity and hope that African leaders will oversee a well-advised reopening of learning institutions and their equipment to ensure enhanced quality and market relevance. 

The Confluence of Moments for Education Sector Agenda

Strikingly, the first virtual graduation of Kenya’s top university, the University of Nairobi, coincided with the date of the youth-centric talent talk series on Talanta TV around the theme of cultivating talents for borderless influence, facilitated by Impact Borderless Digital (IBD). The main speakers at the graduation ceremony emphasised the central role of quality research and data in transparent decision support and sound governance. Dr Vijoo Rattansi, the Chancellor, talked of change and chance as inevitable occurrences — only made more irresistible by COVID-19. She then spared a thought for William Arthur Ward’s quote, “Adversity causes some men to break and others to break records.”

The Talanta TV talent talk (“Talanta Talk No.2”) tackled the topic of youth and the skills they need to stay ahead of the curve. The convergence point of the key messages from this talk and the graduation ceremony was on the need for a diligent and lifelong commitment to skills development in order to cope with the rapidly changing global technology marketplace.

Banking on quality education and training, youth remain central to the changes that should shape economic growth and development agenda in the post-pandemic era. This fact is even more concrete and compelling in Africa, where the median age is barely 20 years. The youth-centric TV broadcast re-emphasised these key areas of skills development that youth need to give priority in the new era to have a fair chance at global competitiveness: digital literacy and fluency, data literacy, global awareness, and refining talents to acquire the skills that can attract compensation at competitive global rates. 

Within the envelope of viewpoints above, the agreement on the utility of data and digitalisation for mutual progress across generations remained unanimous — both at the graduation ceremony and the youth talent talk. The wave of digital transformation, at first sight, presents a ready advantage to the techno-savvy and mainly youthful demographic in the digital economy. This apparent unanimity was, however, short-lived as the dichotomy between age and productivity in the academia played out when the country’s Cabinet Secretary for Education, Prof. George Magoha, made a strong appeal for retaining productive professors with unrivalled experience irrespective of their advanced age. He cited that such a special class of experts can deliver “four times more than” the younger generation despite the higher digital literacy of the latter. He also challenged the young graduates to create jobs instead of looking for employment.

The Critical Questions on Equitable Access to Quality Education

A day of confluences in Kenya like September 25, 2020, must be pregnant with symbolism, meaning, and reflection for Africa’s education sector as the future of a continent confronts the uncertainties of COVID-19. The world has been treated to closures and re-closures of learning institutions because of the disruptive and resurgent waves of the pandemic. The has been the experience in Israel, the UK, Spain, Singapore, among others.

Youth unemployment, a real and growing threat to national development, deserves a more participatory and solution-oriented discussion than isolated policy statements by leaders. Achieving Africa’s Agenda 2063 has its tap root in quality and empowering education for the youth. Without a robust post-pandemic plan for education and skills development, Africa is poised to continue reaping the curse and not the dividends of a youth bulge. 

The following questions are, consequently, critical to shaping reflective and generative dialogue towards reopening learning institutions and ensuring a more impactful post-COVID education sector in Africa.

1. With the pandemic-related decimation of private schools and the public-health imperative of social distancing, do we have enough well-equipped and conveniently located public primary and secondary schools to serve the growing number of learners, who are entitled to basic education as a right?

2. Are learning centres equipped to the degree of preparedness that can qualify them as centres for identifying, nurturing, and maturing talents into market-ready skill sets for employability and job creation?

3. Which time-normalised model should be developed to fairly gauge productivity and issue just rewards across the board in the academia, a sort of “Relative Academic Mass” which will ensure no injustice to particular experience and age cohorts, since age and work experience mostly tend to go together?

4. How robust and well-supported are the mentorship programmes in place to sustain skills transfer and reverse mentorship, given the unforgiving speed of technological innovations accelerated by digital transformation?

An open and multi-stakeholder approach to the four questions could well be the fast lane to a just and win-win engagement of the young and their seniors effectively in national transformation. It is not about which party wins the argument as hero, but what works across the board as a sustainable win-win score where it matters most for both parties.

By Nashon Adero, 

The author is a geospatial expert, lecturer at Taita Taveta University, and trained policy analyst is a youth mentor under Kenya’s Presidential Digital Talent Programme.

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