By the SPHEIR team

09 July 2021 - 12:43

The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) hosted a roundtable session in June to explore how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed higher education and development cooperation. Development funders and collaborators from the Global North and South discussed the adaptations that they have made over the last year and drew out lessons for the future. 

The roundtable ‘Pandemic Alliances: has Covid-19 changed higher education and development?’ was part of the British Council’s Going Global 2021 conference aimed at higher education leaders and was moderated by Alicia Herbert, Director for Education, Gender and Equality at the FCDO.  

Alicia opened the discussion by setting out the importance of collaboration and asking the panel: ‘Goal 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underlines the importance of partnerships in achieving development outcomes and the FCDO has put collaborative partnerships based on mutuality, innovation and sustainability at the heart of higher education reform programmes. But how has the pandemic affected collaborative higher education initiatives?’

Here, we highlight the main themes that emerged from the session:

The added value of working in partnership

The panellists agreed on the importance and effectiveness of working in partnership, particularly at a time of crisis.  Rebecca Allinson, Managing Partner at Technopolis, who outlined the initial findings of a study for the British Council and the Association of Commonwealth Universities into how HE partnerships are addressing the SDGs, emphasised that ‘societal challenges almost always require multidisciplinary approaches […] and Covid-19 is one of these global societal challenges that we have right now […].  Our study […] is showing that partnerships, because they bring together different actors from different sectors and they concentrate resources, are better equipped to address societal issues than other models of intervention and other ways of allocating international development aid.’

Highlighting an example of international partnership in action during the pandemic, Professor Jackson Too, Director of Research and Development at the Commission for University Education (CUE) in Kenya, shared that in some ways the pandemic had proved a ‘blessing in disguise’ for higher education in Kenya, forcing it to move rapidly from a situation where only a quarter of institutions had the capacity to offer their programmes online to one in which all universities began to focus on online provision.  He described how the CUE’s participation in SPHEIR’s Partnership for Enhanced Blended Learning (PEBL) ‘became a very useful platform, a useful vehicle to support the institutions’ in Kenya.  The training provided by PEBL for academics in 21 institutions across Kenya on how to develop and use blended learning approaches meant that ‘the universities whose academics had been trained became so useful when [Covid-19 created] the demand that they migrate to online platforms and accelerated the uptake of technology.’  

The digital divide 

The significant impact of the digital divide between those who can access and use technology effectively and those who cannot emerged as a key issue in the panel’s discussion around the experience of Covid-19.

From a practical perspective, Dr Tania Lima, Director of Global Engagement at King's College London, and Team Leader for SPHEIR’s PADILEIA partnership, highlighted the project’s response to Covid-19. Addressing the question of inclusion, she emphasised that, ‘PADILEIA was already set up to address inequality of access to higher education but when the pandemic started there were other issues of access.  When you move everything online the digital divide became very clear. You can’t assume that everybody has a laptop and internet and, even if they do, it is not always reliable.’

Drawing on the key lessons highlighted in a recent external rapid evaluation commissioned by the PADILEIA project to assess its shift to fully online delivery of its courses for refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon, Tania emphasised the importance of: 1) understanding where students are and what devices they are using for learning; 2) promoting digital skills; 3) training facilitators and teaching staff to teach online; 4) establishing virtual groups to support student learning and well-being; and, 5) using a range of different platforms and facilitating access to devices and connectivity.

Both Professor Too and Solbjørg Sjøveian, Head of the Section for Research, Innovation and Higher Education at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), emphasised that the digital divide exists not only between individuals but also between institutions. As Professor Too set out in the context of Kenya, ‘what Covid-19 did to higher education was to bring out the divide and disparities between learning institutions. There were some which had the infrastructure to be able to mount [programmes online] and run with technology but others were much further down and now efforts are being made to elevate them.’  

At the individual level, Solbjørg  highlighted that online education provides increased opportunities for many but it’s important to keep in mind that others risk being further excluded by barriers to access such as a lack of technical skills or devices, and difficulties in accessing consistent internet provision or a quiet space to study. From a funder perspective, she pointed out that the digital divide is now a key concern and noted that, even in the management of international partnerships, while the shift to online offered an opportunity to include a wider range of voices in meetings, we must also ask ‘who are able to get their thoughts and views across on these digital platforms and who are not? One may assume that it may become even more difficult for marginalised groups to be heard.’

Flexibility of funders

‘From this pandemic, we must learn to actually incorporate room for flexibility and adaptation in our programmes.’  Thinking about the future of international collaboration around higher education and development, Solbjørg Sjøveian from Norad highlighted the importance of donors creating space for adaptive management right from the start of initiatives, as well as the need for greater coordination across funding agencies. This need for increased flexibility from donors was reinforced by the emergent findings from the study being undertaken by Technopolis, with Rebecca Allinson emphasising the need for a high degree of flexibility and creativity both from funders and from organisations participating in partnerships.

Equity in partnerships

The importance of considering equity between partners cooperating internationally was endorsed by all panellists.

Rebecca Allison highlighted that, in addition to social inclusion, equity within partnerships is ‘a really big issue in international higher education partnerships. The partners from the Global North often come to partnerships better equipped, with larger capacity to engage and have a lead role and direct relationships to external funders. Or they bring the largest share of funding themselves. And this can create an asymmetry of power across partner organisations which can affect areas of operation from setting the vision, priorities, organisational models, down to individual activities.’

The panel explored some possible ways to build equitable partnerships, including: discussing the issue of equity right from the beginning of the project lifecycle; maintaining a focus on national, regional and local priorities in target countries; regularly inviting partners to discussions between lead partners and funders; actively considering equity in budget management; and, requiring partners to report to funders jointly.

As Tania Lima emphasised, ‘Partnerships are key for what all universities do. We have always known that, but it has become even clearer.  The issue of equity is really the key issue going forward.  I hope that the pandemic will bring equity more to the fore: from the day you think about a project, did you involve your prospective partners in the shaping of that proposal, or did they receive a proposal already written, just for them to comment or edit?  Have there been workshops?  Is there co-creation, co-management, co-leadership?  When there is disagreement, who gets the final say?’

Solbjørg Sjøveian highlighted the role played by funders in designing programmes that require equity to be considered at different points in project lifecycles and being bold around how resources are allocated, even when this can lead to a higher administrative burden for their teams.  

Reflecting on the experience of the pandemic, she summarised that: ‘Most importantly, what Covid-19 has taught us, definitely here in the global North, is about vulnerability – and it has perhaps put us in a better position to understand the realities of people living in the Global South who are coping with and managing various types of uncertainties more or less continuously.  It provides a push for management systems that take this reality into account.  That would be much more conducive for equitable and dynamic partnerships.’

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The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and is managed on behalf of FCDO by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.

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