Universities key to innovation and limiting the risk of future pandemics- Higher Health

For the Higher Education sector, one of the key lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is to think constantly about how to address the big challenges of the future by thinking about interventions now.”

This was the overriding sentiment shared at a public lecture hosted by Higher Health, in partnership with the Department of Higher Education & Training (DHET), Universities South Africa (USAf), Department of Health (DoH) & NICD and the European Union Commission.

The lecture, held on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Post-school education and training (PSET) sector and aimed to lay the foundation for building long-term, sustainable systems for uninterrupted teaching and learning amidst current and future pandemics. Prof Salim Abdool Karim, who delivered the key address, spoke succinctly about the state of the South African COVID-19 pandemic; lessons from the pandemic response in South Africa; and the implications for the higher education sector going forward.

Prof Karim is a South African clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist who is globally recognised for his ground-breaking scientific contributions in HIV prevention and treatment. Most recently he was the co-chair of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19.

He called for continued public vigilance, emphasising that South Africa is well on its way towards a COVID-19 third wave, with the average daily number of tests conducted and the proportion of positive tests steadily increasing over the last number of weeks.

A high priority for Prof Karim was to draw upon this experience so far and prepare for the next pandemic.

”This is an opportunity for the higher education sector to actively contribute to COVID-19 vaccine roll-out and innovate with new technologies that will help decrease the risk of COVID-19. It is critical that we develop a better epidemic response unit and as a priority build local diagnostic test and vaccine manufacturing facilities.”

Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), echoed the sentiments of capacity building shared by Prof Karim but also noted that COVID-19 had highlighted the inequities in the South African education system, particularly around access to remote teaching and learning.

”Clearly we have to move towards a more social justice approach. We need large national projects which will allow our students and institutions to be brought into the learning process on a more systematic basis. One such project is the possible development of a national digital teaching & learning platform that will be available to all 26 universities and colleges.”

Prof Bawa emphasised that solidarity was needed in the PSET sector going forward to ensure sustainability of higher education institutions.

Mr Bernard Rey, Head of Cooperation, EU Delegation to South Africa noted that these challenges were not uniquely South African, citing the recently published United Nations policy brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond which highlighted the challenges experienced by Higher education globally:

”The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 per cent of the world’s student population, up to 99 per cent in low and lower-middle income countries. Preventing a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe requires urgent action from all. Education is not only a fundamental human right. It is an enabling right with direct impact on the realization of all other human rights. When education systems collapse, peace, prosperous and productive societies cannot be sustained.”

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