Education has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 and the lockdowns imposed in almost all jurisdictions. We refer to the second instalment in June of COVID-19 impact monitoring, a publication of the National Bureau of Statistics in partnership with the World Bank.
It noted that 35 per cent of households with children of school attending age reported some contact between pupil and teacher, compared with just 19 per cent in April/May. (Schools were closed at the time of both these surveys). Yet the share of households reporting some educational activities was unchanged at 61 per cent.
Government revenue has fallen sharply across Africa, indeed across the world, as taxable activity has been closed or curtailed as a result of COVID-19. This is true of direct and indirect taxes, levied on domestic business and foreign trade. Spending cuts have been the predictable consequence of the shortfall. In Uganda, for example, teachers have not been paid since February. In Tanzania schools have been reopened, and access restricted to teachers, meaning that extra-curricular activities and contact with the outside world have been frozen.
There is little doubt that most African education systems require major reform. Curricula are designed by academics without input from the private sector and government. Further, teachers tend to come from a pre-digital generation. At the same time, Google and Apple are looking for tech-savvy young people with soft skills (initiative, creativity and problem solving among others), and do not insist on a university degree.
That said, such companies are not going to soak up the pool of unemployed youths in Africa. When we are told that 30 per cent of the youth in the world will be African in 2050, our initial reaction is to worry rather than dwell upon the opportunity. UNESCO data show that 89 per cent of students in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) do not have access to household computers and 82 per cent lack internet access.
We hear a lot of aspirational ‘edu-tech’ talk from think tanks and private-sector providers that is not grounded in reality. There is a limit to the number of game designers and animators that our new corporate behemoths recruit. ‘Blended and digital learning’ is desirable in itself but is surely not a core requirement in the informal economy. We feel that being tech-savvy does not complete the skill set for would-be employees. Digital does lower the price point certainly but does it reduce it sufficiently for the vast majority of the population?
As ever, there are steps forward to note. In Morocco we understand that universities are government funded but that the private sector drives the focus of higher education. Carnegie Mellon University has set up in Kigali in partnership with the Rwandan government and is addressing the shortage of engineering graduates in the region. Closer to home, Lagos State government is working with social enterprises to provide internships, skills training and basic preparation for youth for employment.
We welcome all these steps and hope that they will be multiplied across the continent. At the same time, all should recognize the huge blow to public resources from COVID-19. Where funding is available, public health will be ahead of education in the queue. The private sector has an important role to play but has to earn a living from its work and is unlikely to get involved in what we will term grass roots education.