AFRICA: Call for higher education support fund

Sixteen African ministers attending a preparatory meeting for the Unesco World Conference on Higher Education, to be held in Paris in July, called for improved financing of universities and a support fund to strengthen training and research in key areas.

The ministers also want improved governance and quality assurance, and diversification of programmes to enable the sector to meet a wider range of needs, according to a conference statement circulated last week.

Africa's Regional Conference on Higher Education, or CRESA, was held in Dakar from 10 to 13 November last year and was organised by Unesco's Regional Office for Education in Africa, in partnership with the government of Senegal. The theme was "New Dynamics on Higher Education and Research: Strategies for change and development".

There were 241 participants from 27 African countries including two prime ministers, 16 higher education ministers, 23 heads of universities and a range of international organisations including Unesco, the African Union, EU, Association of African Universities, Association for the Development of Education in Africa and World Bank.

Following a meeting held during the CRESA conference, the 16 ministers called for more efficient policies to support national and international cooperation, to boost the revitalisation of higher education in Africa.

They urged governments and partners to increase spending on higher education, expand the involvement of women and prioritise science and technology for Africa's development. A Support Fund for Higher Education was proposed, to bolster efforts to expand and improve the sector and to develop training and research in key areas like science and technology.

The ministers said good governance in higher education should be strengthened to achieve greater autonomy, transparency and accountability in management. Diversification of training programmes was needed along with efficient quality assurance mechanisms that would provide a basis for harmonising qualifications.

South African Minister of Education Naledi Pandor called on African states to ensure the autonomy of higher education institutions so they could fully perform their role of creating and disseminating knowledge at the service of an African renaissance.

The aim of the Dakar regional conference was to bring higher education decision-makers, stakeholders and partners together to provide Africa with some shared higher education benchmarks and produce guidelines for the 2009 world conference. The meeting reviewed progress made in the past decade and formulated strategies for the future.

Chair of the CRESA organising committee, Professor Ahmadou Lamine Ndiaye, said considerable improvements had been made in higher education in several areas, including access, equity - especially greater involvement of women - and good governance.

The report said there had been more awareness of the role that should be played by knowledge as the driving force of development. It said the will to reform higher education systems to achieve improvements in relevance and in quality, particularly by establishing monitoring and evaluation, quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms was also more evident.

Efforts to diversify provision and structures as well as sources of financing and to improve links between higher education, the state and private sector had occurred while increasing stress had been placed on information and communication technologies. Sub-regional and regional networks had been created to strengthen inter-African cooperation, exchange of experiences and harmonisation of policies.

But the stock-taking also revealed numerous challenges, said the conference report. One was that access to higher education remained generally very low and Africa was far from achieving the critical mass of skilled people needed to secure its development. The higher education participation rate fluctuated around 5% to 7% and was aggravated by a fairly low success rate, particularly in the first cycle of most universities.

In many countries there was persistent mismatch between the content of training programmes and needs of the market - reflected by high rates of graduate unemployment in some key economic sectors that woefully lacked qualified personnel. An imbalance also existed between numbers of students in the arts and humanities and those in science, technology and vocational streams - especially among women.

Further challenges were lack of reliable statistical data to inform policy and building an African higher education community, as well as the need to construct coherent education systems from pre-school to higher education and the inclusion of private education sas a fully-fledged component with the same demands as public education.

The conference reached conclusions in a number of areas, including: access; relevance, efficiency and effectiveness; quality assurance; research and innovation; partnerships and cooperation; creation of an African Higher Education Area; and funding.

Africa needed to increase and broaden student access to higher education with financial support for students from poor and marginalised communities and greater representation of women across broad fields of study, participants at the conference decided.

There was a call for a diverse range of institutions such as research-intensive universities, undergraduate universities, polytechnics, teacher training colleges and rural institutions. Also, private sector participation and open and distance learning should be encouraged, "with appropriate quality assurance mechanisms in place".

In terms of relevance, efficiency and effectiveness, the conference concluded that institutions should be supported to serve the priorities and needs of Africa's development through socio-culturally relevant curricula. According to the conference report:

"Development plans should match graduate output with national human resource needs in order to minimise graduate unemployment." Further, there should be technical, vocational and entrepreneurship training to prepare graduates for the world of work.

African indigenous knowledge should be included in curricula and disseminated widely, and values of democracy, sustainable development, peace, conflict prevention and resolution as well as ethical values, behaviours and attitudes should be "inculcated in students and staff".

The conference called for governance and management of institutions to be strengthened in ways conducive to "greater autonomy, transparency and accountability", for ICTs and open and distance learning to be used more widely, and for credible information systems and statistical databases to enable evidence-based planning and decision-making.

The meeting concluded that sub-regional and regional quality assurance networks should be established "to promote cooperation among African experts and common frames of reference for standards-setting and monitoring", that regulatory mechanisms for cross-border provision should be developed, and that capacity to deliver quality assurance should be strengthened.

Institutional and human capacity to generate quality research should also be strengthened through funding, training and collaboration with well-established researchers in and outside Africa. Also, quality documentary resources should be established, research and development should be promoted and rewarded - especially that targeting Africa's development problems - and innovation incubators and science parks should be created.

The report stated, that north-south cooperation should be based on strong structures and sustainable frameworks, research-driven cooperation should tackle shared regional cross-border challenges, and cooperation and partnerships should be mutually beneficial and structured to discourage the brain drain while strengthening links with the African Diaspora.

The conference called for the creation of an African Higher Education Area and regional centres of excellence to facilitate the exchange of experiences and expertise, regional student and staff mobility, joint degrees and mutual recognition of qualifications. African language teaching should be strengthened "to promote communication and regional integration".

Finally, the report said there should be a national commitment to fund higher education adequately with African governments giving priority to the sector and allocating more resources to it, while cost-sharing or cost-recovery as well as the diversification of funding sources should be encouraged.

"An African Higher Education Trust Fund should be established to supplement the efforts of African governments and institutions to expand and strengthen higher education institutions."

The conclusions of the conference helped to define a vision for, and the role and challenges facing, higher education, said the report. They would enable higher education and states "to make choices, opt for orientations and design plans of action for the development of post-secondary education in Africa in the years ahead".