AFRICA: New head for African universities association

The new Secretary General of the Association of African Universities, Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, took up his post this month. His priorities include growing the AAU's membership, strengthening its secretariat and collaborating with continental development bodies to drive a revival of African universities. This is no easy job - but one for which the former president of the International Association of Universities and University of Mauritius vice-chancellor is exceptionally well qualified.

Mohamedbhai, a citizen of Mauritius who speaks four languages fluently, obtained a degree and PhD in civil engineering from the University of Manchester and was a postdoctoral Fulbright-Hays scholar at the University of California in Berkeley. He was president of the IAU until 2008 and a vice-chancellor until 2005.

He has chaired many bodies including the Association of Commonwealth Universities, leads the Africa scientific committee of the Unesco Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, and is on the governing council of the United Nations University. Mohamedbhai has authored many publications on higher education in Africa, and participated actively in AAU programmes for years.

The AAU has itself been undergoing a revival in the past five years, in response to growing recognition among governments and international organisations of the crucial role higher education has to play in Africa's development. It is positioning itself to be the prime platform for debate and action on higher education in Africa, and to vigorously support its members and promote cooperation, collaboration and internationalisation.

But the association finds itself in a 'chicken and egg' situation, Mohamedbhai told University World News. The AAU needs to quite dramatically increase its membership numbers - and to get existing members to pay their dues - in order to raise the funds needed to strengthen its secretariat and services, which will in turn make it more attractive for universities to join.

"Membership affects the health of any organisation. It is a crucial issue which has perhaps not been given sufficient emphasis," he said. "Most donor organisations will give money for programmes, but the secretariat must be funded by AAU members."

The AAU has some 212 institutional members, or about a quarter of Africa's more than 800 universities. "But when you look deeper you find that nearly half of all members, about 45%, are not in good standing and have not paid their subscriptions for two or more years." Some universities have not paid for a decade.

"All associations have this problem, but not of this order. It is a serious challenge and we must find solutions," said Mohamedbhai. With higher education's revitalisation underway through infrastructure, research and human development programmes, and donors wanting to assist - but only a quarter of Africa's universities on board - the association cannot afford to throw out tardy members.

Quite the opposite. The AAU, Mohamedbhai argued, needs to expand its membership numbers to 500 to 600 universities, to broaden its geographical spread and become more representative of both public and private universities. "We need to become more inclusive. We need to take on board that the higher education scene has changed and there are more private and non-profit institutions. We need to rope them in and get them to participate."

Africa's colonial divisions linger today and, while there are reasonable membership numbers from Anglophone and Lusophone countries, only some 50 Francophone universities are members - and fewer than a dozen are in good standing. Representation in Arab-speaking countries is also weak. "We need to make French and Arab-speaking universities feel more at ease in and supported by the AAU."

An immediate priority for Mohamedbhai is organising the AAU's four-yearly conference, to be held in Abuja, Nigeria, from 4-9 May next year. The theme is Sustainable Development in Africa: The role of higher education, and the gathering will look not only at what universities can do to promote sustainable development locally and globally but also how they can themselves become more sustainable, accountable and 'green'.

Finally, a major thrust of his work will be collaborating with development stakeholders such as the African Union or AU, New Partnership for Africa's Development, African Development Bank and Unesco's regional office in Dakar, Senegal. "We must avoid duplication of efforts and territorial disputes. We all have the same goals, and must see how we can best work together to support higher education in Africa," Mohamedbhai said.

African universities were neglected for decades. Until the 1990s, across the world, higher education played Cinderella to primary and secondary schooling. In Africa, the World Bank and other organisations gave priority to schools and states did little to support higher education. Universities, with few links to industry and fully dependent on public funding, declined. "This is a major reason for the lamentable state of African universities," he explained.

Changes in attitudes took hold in the late 1990s, starting with Unesco's global higher education conference in 1998, where forceful arguments were made that progress - in school and health systems, economies and societies - depended on strong higher education. With African governments and pan-African organisations increasingly realising the costs of neglecting universities, and funding agencies willing to help, the movement to revive African universities began.

The AAU responded in 2003, following a conference of rectors in Mauritius, and started making major strategic and structural changes. While the role of the association remains similar, Mohamedbhai said, it has become much more active in assisting cooperation and collaboration in higher education, and supporting the development of quality assurance systems, leadership, and information and communication technologies, among other things.

It is also aiming to provide a platform for debate and a voice for higher education in Africa. "Because the AAU covers the whole of Africa, not just Sub-Saharan Africa, it can play a very important role as the apex organisation for higher education. This role has become more prominent precisely because of changes in attitudes towards higher education."

Mohamedbhai is enthusiastic about involving the AAU in partnerships and collaborations with other African stakeholders. Higher education figures prominently in the African Union's Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015), while it was barely mentioned in the First Decade initiative, he said. "Because the AU is a political governance body that cannot get involved in detail, it identified the AAU as the arm that will assist in implementing action on higher education. This is a remarkable step for the AAU."

He stressed the importance of internationalisation. "While there are major problems facing higher education in Africa, we must not be isolated. We must be aware of what is happening elsewhere, learn lessons, and collaborate where possible. Supporting internationalisation is a key role for the AAU."

Mohamedbhai identified several challenges facing African efforts to expand and improve higher education: participation, greater funding, research, and the need for universities to be more engaged in solving Africa's problems.

Participation by Africans in higher education is very low, with only 5-10% of people in the 18 to 24-year age group in tertiary education. "Even in poor Asian countries it is at least 20% and in the developed world it is up to 80%," he pointed out.

"And we can't just talk about numbers. The challenge is for African countries to increase enrolment while also making sure they are addressing the quality, effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of higher education. Also, improving participation is not about creating universities all over a country. Africa needs differentiated higher education systems with colleges, polytechnics as well as some good universities with strong research and postgraduate provision - governments must value the full range of tertiary institutions."

Funding is a major problem, Mohamedbhai said. "Most countries do not have the capacity to fund higher education to sufficient levels. There are many other priorities. We must be bold enough to accept that there must be a private sector. The danger with private institutions is that they can be more concerned about money than quality, so they should be encouraged to operate but under rules and regulations - the same rules that should apply to public and private universities."

Expanding and improving research, he added, was a priority for all African countries: "It is absolutely crucial for development in Africa. But because of our history, pressure of teaching and lack of support for research, many of the best academics have left and young, dynamic African researchers are working in other countries. We need to resolve these problems and ensure that universities participate as actively in research as in teaching."

Finally, Mohamedbhai said: "Higher education must look at challenges in Africa and see how it can participate in solving them. For instance, universities should think about how they can contribute to Millennium Development Goals such as alleviating poverty. They should not leave this up to governments. Higher education is contributing to the fight against poverty by training teachers. But universities must more actively participate in problem solving.

"Rebuilding higher education is not easy and infrastructure development takes time," he concluded. "These are tall orders. But we have to start somewhere."