US-AFRICA: Donors re-commit to African higher education

The seven big United States donors that comprise the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa have announced that they will continue support for universities across the continent beyond their original 10-year commitment - but the form of their collaboration after 2010 has still to be firmed up. By then the Partnership will have made grants worth $350 million to universities, institutions and programmes in nine African countries.

"By strengthening a core group of universities through collective and individual investments, the foundation partners have helped to nurture a rising generation of women and men who will contribute to the further development of democracy and civil society on the African continent," said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation and current chair of the Partnership, in a statement coinciding with the start of the academic year in many countries.

"To enable universities to continue to address Africa's many complex challenges, however, demands that we affirm our long-term commitment to build upon this progress." Other Partnership foundations are Ford, Hewlett, Kresge, MacArthur, Mellon and Rockerfeller.

The premise of the Partnership and its foundations is that stronger African universities could contribute more to poverty reduction and socio-economic development in their countries. Its grants have supported universities, institutions and programmes directed at improving higher education access, excellence, research and diversity at universities in Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

The Partnership for Higher Education started making grants in 2000 and set up a coordinating office in 2002. Its target for the first five years was to make grants worth $100 million, but by 2005 its funding of African higher education had reached $150 million. The Partnership re-launched for a further five years in 2005, and the decision to extend collaboration beyond 2010 was made at an annual meeting of all the foundation presidents in June.

Dr John Butler-Adam, higher education programme officer for the Ford Foundation's Southern Africa office and Ford's coordinator for the Partnership, told University World News that the first 10 years was being seen as the first phase of the Partnership.

"The way in which the Partnership will operate will change in the second phase. We are not sure what the new structure and relations will be but there is commitment to continue collaborative support for higher education in Africa after the 2010 fiscal year," Butler-Adam explained.

In their statement the presidents said that during the next phase collaborative funding would be coordinated by the executive committee of participating foundations' staff that currently supervises the coordinating office. It will "consist of bilateral and multilateral funding, in tandem with other alliances." Each foundation would also continue its own grant-making.

There will be concern in African higher education of a move from a successful foundation partnership to unspecified bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

Lack of concentration, coordination and consistency have been identified as major challenges for development aid. Reviews have shown that there is very little coordination between donor agencies and foundations in most countries - and the Partnership for Higher Education has been hailed a success story in terms of coordinating jointly identified areas of support.

In 2005 the Association of Commonwealth Universities found the Partnership's coordinating role between the US foundations had led to a comprehensive donors strategy that directed funds towards particular institutions in ways that reduced the risk of overlap and oversight, achieved congruous geographic and thematic project delivery, and enhanced consistency.

Among the Partnership's major initiatives has been the delivery of more and cheaper internet bandwidth to universities - a project that Butler-Adam says "has had the greatest and most widespread impact". The creation of a consortium of sub-Saharan universities enabled them to buy a large increase in satellite bandwidth and share internet capacity at lower rates, and also encouraged universities to acquire more hardware and to make far greater use of ICTs.

The Africa edition of University World News is part of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) initiative, funded by four Partnership members, which is developing an expertise network through postgraduate programmes in higher education studies, research on higher education and development, monitoring of key data in selected countries, and the dissemination of university research and information.

Foundation awards made under the Partnership have also included supporting institution-building in individual universities, the activities of departments and strengthening national and regional higher education institutions and networks. They have helped university leaders to modernise and bolster organisational structures in cooperation with universities in the US, UK and other African countries in areas ranging from admissions and registration to fundraising, communications and governmental relations.

Carnegie president Vartan Gregorian told University World News that the Partnership had responded to the fact that "there is great demand for higher education in Africa but not enough resources". One worry was that African governments could begin to see donor money as part of rather than additional to state funding for higher education. So instead of boosting spending it could lead to public money shifting away from higher education to other sectors.

"From the very inception of the next phase we will involve ministers of education and finance, collaborating with them to ensure planning at the national level." Gregorian said the US foundations would like to persuade ministers of the gains strengthened higher education could deliver and "to see universities not as ivory towers but as an integral part of progress in Africa."

Another emphasis of future funding, Gregorian added, would be to promote the advancement of women in African higher education, not only for legal reasons "but also as an economic, social and intellectual necessity". The foundations would continue to provide funding for initiatives that Africans themselves identified and initiated and "with respect for our partners, to eliminate any perceptions of a neo-colonial or paternalistic attitude".