Rethinking the higher education ecosystem

Keynote Address: Africa Knows! Conference (online)

Freddy Weima
Director-General of Nuffic (Dutch organisation for internationalisation and international cooperation in education)

Esteemed excellencies, honoured guests and dear participants,

Thank you for permitting me to address you today. It is really great to have you all on board at Africa Knows! About a year ago, Nuffic embarked on this journey with the Africa Studies Center, with this conference in mind. I am truly proud of the programme we managed to put together, even though the setting is completely different from the original plans. How the future would play out, none of us could have suspected.

 “Never waste a good crisis.” When Winston Churchill spoke these words, he was obviously not referring to a global pandemic that is thoroughly disrupting life. Nevertheless, these were wise words of an iconic leader. Given the moment he spoke those powerful words, he might not have had as much inclusion in mind as we have now.

So let me also quote Orunmila, a contemporary of Socrates, the famed philosopher. Orunmila was not of Greek ancestry, so his words and teachings are not part of the standard teachings in philosophy as taught in the West. That doesn’t mean they do not have power in them as well, or are less applicable than the quote of Churchill. Orunmila states that there might be more wisdom in the world than we know of, if only we give foreign knowledge the chance to reveal its wisdom on its own terms.

That is why I am honoured to be part of the Africa Knows! Conference. Because we do have an actual crisis, and it would definitely be a waste to revert to the way things were before. I mention ‘things’ as a general term, because the opportunities for real change are plentiful. But let’s make them changes that are carried by many, including those who struggle to have agency over their place in the narratives that shape our lives.

We could profit by this present juncture, and do not let the chances offered slip. The question is whether we will grasp it.

The TVET and higher education sector as a whole is faced with a daunting task. How to make sure no one is left behind in a time of great uncertainty? As the academic year unfolds, we see in more detail all the effects this unprecedented pandemic entails.

To give you an example: In a regular year, nearly 5 million students worldwide studied abroad. For instance, in July 2019, nearly 150.000 international students arrived in Australia. In July 2020, there were only 40. In the Netherlands, these figures are not as dramatic as they are elsewhere, but we also have seen a serious decline in the number of students from outside Europe.

Student mobility and scholarships have thus taken new meaning when physical travel isn’t always possible. We learned from our partners that on-boarding students through a digital platform is not nearly the same as welcoming them in a grand ceremony on site. And how to set-up new projects, trainings or alumni activities when whole countries or regions are in lockdown?

The shift from residential to remote learning does not only affect teachers, staff and students. On a fundamental level, the pandemic challenges the very structures and experiences that constitute TVET and higher education. Issues such as digital divides, equity and equality of opportunity shift even more into focus. The very chance that an entire generation will be excluded from education is real, with girls and women especially being in danger of being left behind.

In the media, all focus is on the possibility of securing a vaccine as soon as possible. Understandably so. The human tragedy unfolding immediately before our eyes should require all our attention. But the disruption caused by this coronavirus does not end when a vaccine is widely available.

Over a billion students globally are affected in one way or another. According to Unesco, 9,8 million students on the African content alone are affected. A large number of already at risk youth are completely shut off from education. Some higher education institutions have transitioned smoothly to distance learning, but this has not been the case for the majority.

The transition to move to a virtual environment was necessitated to curb the spread of the virus, laying bare the needs in capacity and infrastructure. Although the crisis sparked a period of innovation by our partners, we also have to conclude that no perfect online substitute exists for in-person, people to people contact which has always been a vital element in building sustainable partnerships.

In short: we can do more than we expected, but less than we want to do.

For those of us who work in knowledge cooperation these challenges are increasingly part of our reality. And we are combatting them, knowing that they are not singular problems that can be addressed by our endeavors only. They need concerted efforts, and it is exactly in this regard that we have seen the strength of all the partnerships within knowledge institutions worldwide.

This constant adaptation, combined with an outlook on the future, that is what also joins us today. No matter how the pandemic evolves in the months and maybe years ahead, the groundwork for positive change is laid with every small step taken. All of us joining digitally is one such step. Sharing and disseminating the knowledge learned today is another such step. Looking back on what has been done and reflecting on these activities is another way to improve actions for the future.

We are constantly on the look-out for different perspectives, intent on including all voices in the deliberations. We have tried to do this in the past, in our current capacity development efforts such as the Orange Knowledge Programme and our student mobility schemes.

There are silver linings aplenty, as portrayed by the words and concepts that have entered the vernacular in this peculiar year. One such concept that reverberates in digital halls is the tech-celeration, the accelerated adaptation of all things digital. Whether that pertains to the digital transformation of education or the technology used for knowledge exchange in a broader sense: the effects are irrevocable.

As a recent McKinsey report mentioned: years’ worth of digital transformation have been compressed into months. In some cases, almost overnight, innovative strategies for on-boarding new students were developed. Switches to blended learning were made. Transitions to on-line learning tools and platforms, such as the ever-present Zoom platform we are using today, took place in the span of mere weeks. Sometimes, mere days even!

We have seen how knowledge institutions from across the world reached out to each other. To learn of novel approaches. To exchange experiences and ideas on improvement. Universities, higher education platforms, primary and secondary teachers and other knowledge partners, they all have stretched themselves to adapt to the unexpected. Whatever the future holds, vaccines permitting or not, these shifts will have lasting effects.

It is my conviction that residential learning will be possible again. But I also believe that future concepts of learning will always incorporate blended forms of remote learning. And if we manage to improve access to digital forms of education, we can be way more inclusive in our programmes.

Another concept that I would like to share with you is that of glocalization, defined here as services developed globally adjusted to accommodate users at a local level. For education, and higher education especially, this is something we see rapidly evolving. At Nuffic, we see how our knowledge of curriculum reform, knowledge gained in our almost seven decades of experience, adds to the strength of our partners. But we also see how they tweak and modify, and make it their own.

Vice versa, local expertise, that we deploy as part of our Global Presence strategy, adds a dimension that not only strengthens the local projects, but also enriches ideas on a global level, thereby echoing the words of Orunmila. It may well be that this amplified local knowledge leads to questions about the existing knowledge structures. This might have fundamental consequences on the longer term.

Dear colleagues,

Whatever happens, I hope we will all stand for  cooperation, as opposed to isolation, so that we can all increase our opportunities for success. I have titled this keynote address as ‘rethinking the education ecosystem’. Because, as I hardly need to tell you, education does not exist in a vacuum. The tech-celeration I mentioned earlier will have severe knock-on effects that disrupt economies. Glocalization as a concept is inspiring, but by no means on its own guarantees the inclusion of the marginalized or disenfranchised. This demands concrete concerted efforts.

At Nuffic, we believe education is the engine for growth. Any engine consists of thousands of parts that are all interlinked. All are vital to the overall performance. And any engine, throughout the course of history, has been improved upon by adding new perspectives and insights to the design.

As part of ‘decolonizing the mind’, I hope that the same efforts will be put into a rethinking of the ecosystem that lies at the base of education. That policy and practice, across countries and continents, will be shaped with a better future in mind, for each and everyone. The post-covid world should by all means be a world permeated with positive change.

It has been said a hundred times before this year, so I will definitely not be the first to mention it here today. The Covid-19 pandemic can be a catalyst for change. If 2020 was the year of disruption, let 2021 be the year for change. If these past twelve months were the months of transformation, let the coming months show the fruits of these labors. And if there is but a single lesson to be learnt from this pandemic, let it be that we can only overcome by joining forces.I wish you all a good conference, with lots of insights and hopefully many new partnerships.

Thank you!