Monday, February 6

Covid-19 and higher education: How universities are leading the recovery in emerging economies


Universities in emerging economies have shown they have a key role to play in the response to the coronavirus crisis, through both cutting-edge research and development (R&D) and pioneering approaches to teaching and studying.

Higher education institutions around the world have adopted a range of different models in reaction to the pandemic. Some are working more closely with governmental bodies, while others are cultivating partnerships with the private sector; some are acting independently, while others are coordinating with other higher education institutions; and some are sharing their research and insights freely, while others are developing for-profit approaches in order to guarantee the sustainability of initiatives.

However, within this diverse panorama, it is possible to identify three main areas in which universities are making major strides.

The first is medical research and development (R&D), including Covid-19 vaccines; the second is the development of digital solutions applicable across society; and the third is related to leveraging the new norm of technology-mediated education.

At the forefront of medical research

Numerous universities in emerging markets have contributed to the fight against the pandemic by producing medical supplies, thereby helping to meet shortfalls and reduce the dependence on imports.

In Morocco, for example, Rabat International University produced tens of thousands of masks to donate to hospitals. Meanwhile, in April a group of engineers from Mohammed VI Polytechnic University announced the development of two “100 per cent Moroccan” devices: an artificial respirator and an infrared thermometer.

Similarly, in Vietnam, Hanoi University of Science and Technology created a coronavirus test kit in early February. Following this, the Military Medical University developed a test in collaboration with Viet A, a local tech firm, and with funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology; the kit was approved by the World Health Organisation in April and is now being distributed around the world.

Another area where higher education institutions are at the forefront of medical R&D efforts is in the development of coronavirus vaccines. While the UK’s University of Oxford has been in the headlines for its work in this field, numerous institutions in emerging markets have also been making progress.

For instance, the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Peru’s leading medical university, is collaborating with Farvet, a local biopharmaceuticals firm, on a vaccine against the virus. The drug will go to testing in October, and it is hoped it will be ready by next year.

“We will not always be able to buy or import solutions,” Mirko Zimic, the biophysicist heading the project, told the journal Nature. “It is my dream that in Peru, as well as in several countries in Latin America, we start producing our own vaccines.”

In Mexico, meanwhile, four separate vaccines are being developed at four different universities – among them Mexico City’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – with each one employing a different approach; the initiative is being coordinated by the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute). As in Peru, the emphasis is on meeting national demand.

On a similar note, the World Bank-supported African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, part of Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, produced Africa’s first sequencing of Covid-19 within days of the pandemic arriving in the country.

Whether or not such initiatives will enable countries to produce their own vaccine, their research and production capacities will certainly be boosted, standing them in good stead going forward.

Driving digital innovation

One of the principal effects of the worldwide coronavirus lockdown has been a massive shift online. In response, universities have been developing digital solutions to help citizens adapt to Covid-19 in day-to-day life.

To take an example, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), part of Hamad bin Khalifa University, has been working with the Ministry of Public Health in developing a series of new digital platforms.

In an effort to reduce pressure on the country’s health system, QCRI launched an online self-assessment application that educates users on the symptoms of Covid-19, and advises when to seek medical help.

Elsewhere, its “fake news” detection platform, known as Tanbih, is being deployed in the fight against virus-related disinformation, while its data-processing platform Rayyan helps health care experts and
researchers process the huge amount of virus-related information that is emerging daily.

In South Africa, the University of Cape Town produced a tracking app – called Covi-ID – that is specifically tailored to emerging contexts. It produces a personalised QR code which enables users to be tracked and traced in the case of infection. This code may also be printed out by those without a smartphone or internet coverage.

Remote learning and new teaching methods

Worldwide, lockdowns have driven teaching online. But this comes with its own set of challenges in emerging economies, foremost among them being limited internet access.

In Senegal, dominant ICT player Sonatel has moved to address this issue, giving students the chance to activate a free 1GB education pass. The plan provides access to educational content via partners including the Virtual University of Senegal, the Virtual University of Tunisia and the National Centre for Distance Learning.

In response to the same problem, in Bahrain the telcos Bahrain Telecommunications Company and Zain Bahrain enabled eligible customers to browse designated educational websites without being charged or using their data.

But it is not just students who need to adapt. When it comes to remote learning, lecturers must do more than simply deliver course materials through video conferencing. The transition to virtual learning demands new approaches, with multimedia elements central to effective online study. Teachers often need to be reskilled, and the collaboration of students in instructional design is vital.

A regional pacesetter in this area is Bahrain, which has seen a widespread uptake of e-learning solutions.

The bulk of this has been carried out through a dedicated electronic education portal, set up by the Ministry of Education and the Bahrain Information and eGovernment Authority, in conjunction with cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services.

As the new academic year rolls around, many universities will build on their recent experience of e-learning and turn to hybrid or ‘blended’ educational approaches that combine online study and face-to-face interaction.

For instance, on July 21 Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities announced that a hybrid education model along these lines would be implemented, with a view to minimising the density of students on campuses.

One blended solution that is gaining ground is that of the virtual laboratory. An example is the Remote and Virtual Education Laboratory at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Launched in October last year, the initiative lets students work remotely on coding and robotics, and collaborate with people in different countries.

The shift to online, blended teaching and learning will have an impact that extends long after the pandemic.

“The emergence of educational technology will create access to lifelong learning opportunities, in response to the rapid obsoletion of existing skills. Flexible, blended learning opportunities will help sustain employability,” Randa Bessiso, director at the University of Manchester Middle East Centre in Dubai, told OBG.

Expanded collaboration will also be key going forward. “I believe we will see a surge in creative partnerships between educational institutions as organisations try to build on our new collective experience and quickly add capabilities, resources and reach,” Bessiso added.

This opinion piece was produced by the Oxford Business Group.