African universities hamstrung by poor campus network

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An ambitious action plan has been proposed to connect African universities and other post-secondary education institutions on the continent to high-speed internet at a cost of US$52 billion, an expense that would also provide laptops to 15 million students and 500,000 teaching staff in the next five years, running between 2021 and 2025.

The World Bank and Knowledge Consulting Limited, which proposed the intervention, said the suggested cost would also cover bills for upgrading campus networks, bandwidth cost for upstream connectivity and development support for national research and education networks and their regional counterparts, such as the UbuntuNet Alliance, West and Central African Research and Education Network, or WACREN, and the Arab States Research and Education Network.

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The action plan is included in a study, ‘Feasibility Study to Connect all African Higher Education Institutions to High-speed Internet,’ and in four case studies that were undertaken in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Uganda.

According to a team of researchers led by Samia Melhem, a senior digital development specialist at the World Bank, the higher education sector in Africa is behind the global research and education networks in terms of internet connectivity.

“The available bandwidth is generally expensive and limited in capacity and cannot meet modern institutions’ research and education requirements,” the researchers stated in the report.

Poor campus networks

In their vision of a continent where all higher education institutions achieved global parity in intellectual output and development impact in terms of access and exploitation of broadband connectivity, the researchers noted the main challenges are related to poor campus networks as well as the very limited individual access to computers by students and staff.

The issue is that, although the available primary internet infrastructure has increased in Africa, fibre coverage varies widely among countries, largely influenced by geography, level of competition and investment by public- and private-sector operators.

In this aspect, whereas some countries have networks that could support their higher education connectivity needs, the presence of an extensive internet infrastructure has not necessarily led to adequate provision of broadband connectivity to universities.

The study highlighted low public- and private-sector investment support for National Research and Education Networks, or NRENs, in that, whereas most countries have established such institutions, in reality only about 20 countries have NRENs that deliver connectivity to tertiary institutions.

So far, only about five NRENs in the continent could be considered as mature, a problem that researchers linked to lack of awareness of the role of higher education connectivity, stated the study.

But, contributing to a shortage of funding, researchers argued that most NRENs have failed to retain competent staff, who are attracted by higher pay within the ICT private sector.

Efficient pathways to access connectivity

To improve capacity of NRENs and the Regional Research Education Networks, or RRENs, the World Bank estimated development support of US$518 million in the next five years.

World Bank and Knowledge Consulting Limited in the study regard NRENs and RRENs as the most efficient pathways for the higher education sector in Africa to improve its footprint on access to affordable high-speed internet connectivity which is necessary for continued learning and research.

Towards that goal, the World Bank urged African countries to work with development partners and telecommunication companies to see how high-speed internet could be made cheaply available to universities and other higher education institutions in Africa.

Researchers observed that, whereas the cost of bandwidth has come down, internet access in Africa is still much more expensive compared to other regions of the world and often less reliable, especially in rural and peri-urban locations.

According to the Uganda case study, higher education institutions in the country do not have access to adequate bandwidth to meet their research and education needs because the available broadband is expensive and insufficient to address their needs.

A similar case was observed in the Cote d’Ivoire case study which noted that, although universities were connected to the national research and education network, bandwidth costs are still very high, effectively making internet services expensive without a government subsidy.

Institutional impediments

But, whereas low bandwidth and connectivity costs are major problems, researchers highlighted a range of institutional impediments to the integration of ICT in support of learning, research and effective administration in African higher education institutions.

Absence or, in other cases, deficient ICT policies and strategies, as well as limited ICT awareness and ICT literacy among faculty and administrators were not just common strands in all the case studies but in most countries in the continent, said researchers in their report.

Issues arise from limited competence of campus ICT personnel, while poor quality of networks design presents a significant challenge because most of the buildings in higher education on the continent were designed for the traditional teaching and learning environment.

Amid efforts to improve digital and physical learning spaces, the study noted an urgent need for African higher education systems to develop campuses with integrated smart classrooms with different technologies, such as smart-boards, projectors, cameras, audio equipment and lighting.

In this regard, shortage of individual ownership of laptops among students and staff was seen as one of the weakest links in the connectivity value chain, a factor that emerged during the COVID-19 lockdowns and made any physical face-to-face approach to learning difficult.

To overcome the problem, the feasibility study proposes a cost unit of US$17.3 billion to enable students and academic staff to have individual ownership of laptops to support reforms in learning and new ways of teaching digital skills to meet the demands of 21st-century jobs.

But, for this to happen, as well as upscaling the overall broadband connectivity in African higher education systems to improve learning outcomes, the study suggests the need for African governments, donors and the private sector to work together to push the agenda forward, which demands cost sharing and adhering to the five-year timeline.

As for now, there is no single African country that is very close to having all university students and lecturers having individual ownership of a laptop, or getting affordable high-speed internet to all the campuses and other higher education learning spaces and the new study appears to be a wake-up call that much needs to be done to improve higher education on the continent.

Credit: University World News

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