University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, took part in a panel discussion titled The Lost Generation? The Gendered Impact of COVID-19 on Education during the 2021 Forbes Woman Africa Leading Women Summit on 9 March. The conversation revolved around taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the pandemic for creating a future-fit generation of leaders.
The two-day, free-to-attend summit was hosted online on 8 and 9 March 2021 and brought together a collection of eminent female leaders from across Africa and the world. The overall theme of the event, "Africa Reloaded: The power of the collective", set its focus on analysing the opportunities for recovery, growth and inclusivity on the continent that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
Alongside the United Nations' (UN) representative in China, Siddharth Chatterjee, and senior economic adviser for the Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative, Dr Obiageli 'Oby' Ezekwesili, Professor Phakeng explored the challenges the pandemic has presented and how equitable education is a key driver in creating opportunities for all.
Bringing challenges to the fore
In his opening comments, Chatterjee likened the pandemic to a bolt of lightning, the flash of which had illuminated the inequalities that exist within society. This, he said, has emphasised the need for the international community to place gender equality front and centre in order to drive change.
"Educate a girl, you educate a family, you educate a community and you educate a nation."
"We need to be reminded of the reality: Educate a girl, you educate a family, you educate a community and you educate a nation," he added.
Phakeng echoed this sentiment, honing in on the various challenges that the lockdowns have accentuated, both for society and institutions of education. "COVID-19 brought to the fore challenges that we've always known have existed - poverty, inequality, gender-based violence. It has simply made them more visible," she noted.
"Since the outbreak of the virus, levels of violence against women and girls have increased and have of course been exacerbated by the mandatory lockdown. For many female students, this has set them back a year, because when we released them from the university to go and learn remotely, we were sending some of them to environments that are hostile to women."
A silver lining
Expanding on this, the vice-chancellor indicated that although the effects have been less than desirable, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has also presented some opportunities.
"In every crisis, there is a silver lining. With the pandemic, it has pushed us into innovation mode. The kind of disruption we've had has, in a way, forced us to face the challenges that we may have not been addressing as urgently as we should have."
Digitised and blended learning, Phakeng pointed out, was one such opportunity.
"One thing that we did, which we hadn't planned to do at that time, was to implement our online learning strategy.
"It's no longer a debate whether blended learning is something that's valuable or not, because we have to do it. So now digitised education is something that's at the centre of what we're doing, where it wasnʼt before."
New way of thinking
Dr Ezekwesili agreed with the sentiment that the shifts brought about by the pandemic have created prospects for growth. However, she drew attention to the fact that the structural change that is occurring in the global economy calls for major reforms in thinking - especially as it relates to education and the creation of human capital.
"There are many children ... who, although they are in school, are not getting the kind of instruction that would enable them to have quality learning outcomes."
"There are many children on our continent who, although they are in school, are not getting the kind of instruction that would enable them to have quality learning outcomes. The reason I bring this up is because you will find that public education is related to poverty," she said.
"The poor are the ones who are left in failing school systems on the continent. And if you are abandoning your poor in failing public school systems, it means that education as a social mobility tool is not going to perform its function.
"So we are in trouble in that regard and it is something that we need to pay serious attention to if we are going to imagine and take advantage of the serious structural change that is happening at the moment."
This, Ezekwesili said, requires African leaders to adopt a new way of thinking. "When serious structural change is happening in a global economy, you don't continue with the same kinds of policies and priorities that you had before such a massive structural change."
The transformation that is required, said to the former vice-president of the World Bank's Africa region, is placing people at the centre of every recovery plan.
"We need to put human development at the centre of recovery in every sector in every economy on the continent, especially in terms of evaluating the strategic thinking that needs to [happen] behind the investment into and development of this asset."
Graduates of the future
In support of these assertions, Phakeng highlighted that in addition to considering how their role in the educational system and society at large is changing, institutions like UCT must also evaluate the types of graduates leaving the university. "We should also critique 'graduateness' - what does it mean, what kind of graduate do we produce?" she said.
"In terms of this thinking, the pandemic has come at the right time, because it makes some of the questions less controversial and allows us to address certain issues. We can openly discuss that the kind of graduate that we should produce is one [who] is supposed to be able to function in a rapidly changing world.
"They cannot be locked in the old way of doing things. They have to be enterprising; everyone who comes out of the university must be entrepreneurial in their outlook on life."
It is through asking these questions and shifting societyʼs focus, the panel maintained, that it will be possible to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to support education and prioritise the development of human capital required to take Africa forward.