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Europe’s role in supporting a rising Africa

‘Africa is Rising’, ‘The New Africa’, ‘Africa Works’! These are some of the headlines Professor Ton Dietz, director of the African Studies Centre in Leiden, showed at a seminar in Brussels on 13 December 2013 with the title “For Mutual Gain: Euro-African cooperation in higher education”.

The session was organised by the Academic Cooperation Association, or ACA, in partnership with the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD, the European Association for International Education and the European University Association, or EUA.

He used these headlines to indicate the high economic growth figures for the continent. Also, African higher education is seeing major changes: rising demand and increased massification, privatisation, growth of think-tanks and more study abroad within the region and overseas, with Asia and Brazil as new emerging destinations.

He also discussed some of the downsides of these developments: lack of quality teachers and researchers, increased commercialisation and diploma and degree fraud, even among university leaders and academic staff.

In his introduction to the seminar Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, spoke about a revitalisation of higher education in Africa – although at the same time he concluded that a lot remained to be done.

Higher education in Africa, according to him, received a setback following the decision of the World Bank in the 1990s to support basic education in preference to higher education, but then a boost – from the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in 1998, where higher education was recognised as vital for development.

The revitalisation of African universities really started in 2005 when higher education was recognised as a key area, in particular by the African Union.

Some priorities

Mohamedbhai called for regional sharing and a sustainability programme to bolster revitalisation, a more active role for the African diaspora in this process, higher priority for regional cooperation, and for African universities to forget about entering the global rankings race.

He stated that more attention should be given to data recording and analysis for the purposes of higher education policy-making at the institutional and national level, and said that higher education policy units needed to be established to undertake research on African higher education since research is currently done primarily outside the continent.

He listed a great number of areas for further revitalising higher education on the continent: increased access and equity, more differentiation, a review of financing of higher education, improved leadership, curriculum reform, staff development and greater and more effective use of ICT.

Three areas he mentioned specifically were: harmonisation of higher education, quality assurance, and research and development networks and centres of excellence.

Both Mohamedbhai and Ton Dietz highlighted the role of European Union cooperation as a factor in revitalising African higher education and called for continued support.

Mohamedbhai made reference to the importance of the EU in the harmonisation of African higher education, such as the Tuning Africa programme, and the role of DAAD and the EUA in quality assurance, including the DAAD centres of excellence and support from the European Commission for the NEPAD Water Centres of Excellence initiative in Africa.

Ton Dietz delivered a more critical analysis of the role of Europe in developing higher education in Africa.

He called for Europe to no longer give priority to capacity development of second- and third-rate universities and to concentrate on the best knowledge centres and the best people, and foster equal research partnerships which could be used as a basis for capacity development elsewhere in Africa. He pleaded for Europe-Africa-Asia and Europe-Africa-Brazil networks.

Like Mohamedbhai, he advocated better use of the African diaspora. And he called for European students and staff to be encouraged to spend time in Africa, for long-term research collaboration and co-publication, joint degrees with the best knowledge centres and a link to open university and open source experiences.

A tradition of internationalism

Their two introductory presentations were followed by examples of cooperation between the EU and African higher education from both African and European presenters as well as from the World Bank on its African centres of excellence initiative.

The seminar provided a comprehensive insight into the development of African higher education and the role of the EU in its revitalisation. Some observations though are important.

Firstly, it is important to realise, as Mohamedbhai states, that African higher education has always been highly international.

One might even say that it is probably the most international higher education sector in the world, given its heritage from colonial models and systems, its large number of leaders and academic staff trained outside of Africa, its big diaspora of academics – a result of the so-called brain drain – the presence of foreign providers and the large number of African students abroad.

Being so internationalised is not only a blessing – it also has many negative consequences.

Only when embedded in a new regional and sub-regional identity, culture and structure, can this international dimension be transformed into something positive. If not, increased commercialisation and competitiveness will have a negative impact on the further revitalisation process described by Mohamedbhai.

Secondly, although regionalisation of African higher education is emphasised as an important factor, this attention to Africa as a continental region should not ignore the importance of the several African sub-regions.

Like other continents, Africa is a diverse and complex region due to its many cultures, languages, religions and colonial influences. This is also reflected in its higher education sector, and ignoring that diversity instead of building on it might be couterproductive.

It is also important to realise that in a ‘Rising Africa’ there are still a lot of countries and regions that are facing extreme poverty, armed conflicts, corruption and violations of human rights, as the recent strife in South Sudan and the Central African Republic unfortunately makes clear.

Issues of diversity

Related to this diversity, the role of language in African higher education needs to be addressed – the role of local languages as well as that of the different colonial languages and the increasing role of English as a dominant language for research and teaching.

Other important issues of diversity that have to be addressed are:

  • The need for a diverse higher education system. A focus, as proposed by Ton Dietz, on the best knowledge centres runs the risk of denying the need for a more diverse system. It is generally understood that only countries and regions with a highly diverse higher education system perform well in terms of development.
  • The need for a focus on all forms and levels of education. The past decision of the World Bank to focus only on basic education at the expense of higher education may have been wrong, but to focus exclusively on higher education might have the same negative impact.
  • Diversity in the academic profession is needed. There is serious concern in Africa, even more than elsewhere in the world, that there is too little diversity and mobility within the academic profession with little space for career development and innovation.
  • Gender imbalance. Like elsewhere, higher education leadership and senior academic staff are still predominantly male. Although there are some positive examples of female university leadership in Africa, there is still a long way to go.

There is serious concern about the access of African scholars to international peer-reviewed journals. Open access, although in itself a positive thing, will not solve this issue.

More co-authorship between African scholars and those from abroad is one way to stimulate greater access; another is the creation of African academic journals, with the same standards as the dominant Western ones.

There is also a need for more focus on postgraduate education, in particular the quality of PhD education where, in addition to academic skills, more attention is given to managerial and professional skills in order to increase employability rates and to improve management both outside and inside higher education.


African higher education has to deal with increased donor competition and a need for more donor coordination.

If the new donors – China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil – are appearing on the horizon with less, or at least less apparent, strings attached, the traditional donors from Europe, both old and new, should coordinate their efforts more clearly with the long-term and sustained interests of African higher education and society in mind.

Cooperation for mutual gain requires transparency from all sides.

These are only some of the issues that are relevant for African higher education and the role of the EU in cooperating with the continent. In light of its own identities and diversities there is enough place for optimism for the further vitalisation of African higher education.

The EU and other donors should learn from the mistakes they have made in the past when it comes to helping the higher education sector in Africa develop itself.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. He is also research associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email: j.w.m.de.wit@hva.nl. This blog is based on an invited commentary the author presented at the end of the ACA seminar “For Mutual Gain: Euro-African cooperation in higher education” held in Brussels on 13 December 2013.
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