AFRICA: Fears for continent's once-great universities

Africa must reconstruct its once-great universities or fall even further behind the rest of the world, Association of Commonwealth Universities General Secretary, Professor John Tarrant, has warned. Speaking to University World News, Tarrant cited the plight of Africa's universities as the most worrying issue in global higher education after the immediate issue of the global recession.

Tarrant, who travels extensively as head of the 500-member association, is in a strong position to gauge international trends and issues in the world of higher education. He was interviewed while on a visit to New Zealand where he said developing and developed nations around the world were investing heavily in the expansion of their higher education systems because they recognised the important role of universities in social and economic development.

That investment meant Africa was falling even further behind the rest of the world, despite its efforts to improve higher education.

"The UK, Australia and New Zealand are all looking at expanding higher education, India is just about to go through a major phase of expansion and it's all driven by a shared belief across almost all countries that higher education is vital for the prosperity and survival of economies and societies as we continue to move into a global information society," he said.

Higher-level skills would be essential in such a society and if they were essential for countries such as India, Malaysia, Australia and the UK, then they were also essential for Africa. Participation rates in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa were about 5%, well behind rates in the mid-40s and 30s in the developed world.

"There is a long, long way to go in Africa and if we don't do something about that, then all other international development efforts will be hindered," Tarrant said. "If you think of things like universal primary education...where are the teachers coming from, where is the curriculum development going to be done?

"Poverty development programmes, sustainable economic development programmes, agriculture, food supply programmes - all these programmes to get countries out of extreme poverty require a cadre of skilled and educated people and it's from higher education that those are going to come."

Tarrant said the ACU was not a development organisation but it could assist in its role as a network of universities by bringing people together to share good practice, discuss issues and develop partnerships.

He was also concerned about the impact of the global recession on universities. Though they were likely to experience increases in government and private spending as a response to the recession, funding was likely to become a problem after the recession.

"When the recovery starts, it's then that universities tend to be squeezed. It's counter-cyclical...we felt that in the 1970s and '80s and I suspect it will happen again," he said. "People talk about bridging across the recession but we don't know what the other side of the bridge is going to be like. Universities are no different from any other sector of the economy or society in that respect, and that level of uncertainty across the world is deeply worrying."

But Tarrant was heartened by the importance that governments around the world now placed on universities. There was an acceptance that they had an important role to play in the social and economic well-being of a nation.

"That is a matter of great encouragement to me."

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.