Inter-University Council for East Africa looks beyond 50 years

Cataclysmic. It is hard to find another word to define 2020. It is the year that the COVID-19 pandemic struck and, as a result, the world will never be the same again. In East Africa, the first confirmed case was in Kenya in March 2020 – just as the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) started to plan the celebrations for its 50 years of existence.

Cataclysmic. It is hard to find another word to define 2020. It is the year that the COVID-19 pandemic struck and, as a result, the world will never be the same again. In East Africa, the first confirmed case was in Kenya in March 2020 – just as the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) started to plan the celebrations for its 50 years of existence.

Higher education in East Africa dates back a little further than 1970 to 1963 when the University of East Africa – now Makerere University – was established in Uganda to serve Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. At the time it was a constituent college of the University of London. In 1970, the University of East Africa was dissolved to make way for the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Nairobi and Makerere University.

Allow me a brief reflection of the past 50 years because, in the time of COVID-19, it feeds into the future the IUCEA is envisioning.

Desirous of continuing collaboration between them, the vice-chancellors of Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Makerere universities decided in the early 1970s to form what they called the Inter-University Committee (IUC), operating under the then East African Community (EAC) established in 1967 by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The community, however, collapsed in 1977 but the Inter-University Committee soldiered on. In 1980, the vice-chancellors of the three universities, in consultation with the permanent secretaries in charge of higher education in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania signed a memorandum of agreement transforming the Inter-University Committee into the Inter-University Council for East Africa or IUCEA.

In 1999, the East African Community was revived and, in 2000, the IUCEA was recognised as a surviving institution of the EAC and a legal framework was put in place entrenching it into the EAC treaty.

Achievements to celebrate

In spite of the comparatively young higher education landscape in East Africa, the inter-university council felt there was enough to celebrate in 2020. First was the fact that, in spite of the turbulence experienced by the original East African Community, IUCEA had survived.

During the period between 1977 when the EAC collapsed and 1999, when it was revived, the council received only minimal state support, mainly from Uganda, and yet had remained intact. The council had, therefore, demonstrated the power of education for regional integration.

Secondly, the council had worked hard towards, and achieved, the declaration of the EAC as a common higher education area. This was given the nod by the heads of state of the partner states of the EAC in May 2017 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. As a result, the region can now move towards a more harmonised higher education system that facilitates mutual recognition of qualifications, comparability, compatibility and credit accumulation and transfer.

The EAC council of ministers had also pronounced themselves on uniform fees, stipulating that any citizen of the regional community, studying outside the country of nationality, but within the community, would be charged the same fees as those charged to the citizens of his or her country of study.

On the other hand, the German Development Bank had advanced a grant of about €5 million (US$6 million) managed by the IUCEA to provide scholarships to disadvantaged but bright East Africans to study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in universities across the East African Community with only one condition: to study in a country other than their own. A total of 56, drawn from the current six East African partner states, were already studying in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Thirdly, IUCEA, which has been selected as the regional facilitating unit of the World Bank-funded African Centres of Excellence for Eastern and Southern (ACE II) was at an advanced stage of implementing the project. The 24 centres, in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, were making progress in establishing themselves. Cumulatively, they were hosting about 60 female scientists on scholarships for postgraduate studies and four of the centres had won small grants of US$250,000 each as seed money in support of innovation incubations.

Besides, the inter-university council had established a robust regional staff mobility programme that was encouraging the sharing of skills within the EAC partner states. Under this programme, skilled academics are supported to move from their own countries into another country in the region and spend up to three months in another university offering their expertise in research, teaching and learning and community service.

Participation in the programme, that aimed at supporting about 40 to 50 staff members a year, had been growing steadily until COVID-19 struck in March and put a stop to the plans of 29 academics who were selected to travel (except for two).

In addition, the inter-university council had successfully enabled the establishment of a regional higher education quality assurance system based on a number of tools and related documents. The East African Higher Education Qualifications Framework had been developed, approved and published in 2015.

Also, several quality assurance tools had been developed, published and circulated for implementation across East Africa. These include The Road Map to Quality: A handbook for quality assurance in higher education in five volumes; Principles and Practices for Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in East Africa; Standards and Guidelines for Postgraduate Studies; and subject benchmarks in various fields including business studies, information technology, agriculture, medicine and engineering. In short, we were rearing to go when COVID-19 struck.

Shifting to the virtual office

Within a short time, lockdowns ensued across East Africa. Staff mobility became impossible. Face-to-face meetings were cancelled. It soon became crystal clear that we could not continue with business as usual.

In the IUCEA 2016-21 strategic plan, there was an objective of developing a regional higher education information system and also building the capacities of universities to adopt information technology for teaching and learning, research and even community engagement. In 2019, during the institution’s annual forum, we had brought members together under the theme: “Effectively leading universities in the context of ICT and digitalisation of higher education in the East African Community partner states”.

We had talked about the need to embrace the fourth industrial revolution and reap the attendant benefits. The council had acquired and installed video-conferencing equipment, subscribed to Zoom, and brought on board an expert supported by GIZ, a German service provider in the field of international cooperation related to education and development, to develop a digital learning infrastructure that could be used for regional capacity-building programmes.

As a result of these fairly modest efforts, in 2020, IUCEA was able to shift from the face-to-face office to the virtual office. Staff received internet bundles to be able to work from home and Zoom was adopted to hold meetings.

Plans for elaborate celebrations of our jubilee were shelved and, instead, we organised webinars with local and international stakeholders on the themes of research and education in the East African community, community engagement policy and practice for universities, international trends in higher education and the implications for East Africa.

The climax of these endeavours was a blended conference that allowed a few people in a face-to-face environment and a wider audience in attendance virtually. We managed to host participants from the East African community as well as other regional and international stakeholders.

Permanent secretaries in the ministries of education and also from the ministries of East African affairs engaged in a dialogue to chart the way forward for the IUCEA and also higher education in the region. As a result of the COVID-19 experience, we learnt a number of lessons.

Lessons learnt

First, that change in the world is happening quickly and in enormous leaps and bounds. We, therefore, cannot afford to spend inordinately long periods theorising. Higher education must shift from theory to practice with greater speed than is currently the case in East Africa.

Secondly, there is a need to abandon the old way of doing things and to embrace the new normal. This means adopting new methods of teaching, learning, assessment and certification in the context of the fourth industrial revolution – and possibly coming to terms with a reality in which the bricks and mortar university is facing the beginning of its end.

There is now possibly emerging a critical mass of students who are so used to technology that they will find the idea of being limited in terms of time or geographical space in order to access education positively revolting.

Thirdly, the only constant we can be assured of is change. This means that higher education policy-makers and implementers must be aware that quality assurance practices, standards and guidelines cannot be static.

Fourthly, the sharing of resources no longer needs to be constrained by physical barriers, or even by territorial boundaries. Staff mobility, for example, does not have to be physical. It may be desirable, but it can also be virtual. In short, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of higher education has to be transformed from cataclysmic to revolutionary.

Looking ahead

In the coming years, the IUCEA plans to build an institutional digital infrastructure as a resource for universities in the region. It is clear that many universities in the region were caught flatfooted for not having sufficiently embraced emerging technologies for teaching, learning, research and community development.

The council hopes to employ technology to build the capacities of universities by tooling and retooling academic staff in various areas of specialisation. So far, the digital infrastructure has been used for a learning management system that is currently focused on technology-mediated pedagogy, research, postgraduate supervision, quality assurance, leadership and higher education management.

The council plans to build a critical mass of skilled trainers of trainers in these areas and to keep tooling and retooling them in order to ensure that the supply is kept constant and updated on changing technologies. Collaborative engagement in the core mandate of universities will be kept in constant focus for greater regional integration.

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