AFRICA: Leaders fail education's needs

African leaders lack the political will to make education a priority. While the continent has resources and skills, it does not have the willpower to have education on the top of the agenda, N igeria"s University of Ilorin Vice-chancellor Professor Is-haq Oloyede said during his inauguration as the new President of the Association of African Universities.

Oloyede took over from former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele.

The inauguration was held at the end of the association's 12th general conference in Abuja, Nigeria, last week, where the theme was "Sustainable Development in Africa: The role of higher education".

Oloyede said that if African leaders continued to neglect education, the continent would not develop. When leaders organised society in such a way that they demolished a school to build a hotel, it sent a message about how much they valued education.

"If you pay your members of the legislature higher than university professors you are making a statement about how much you value higher education," he said.

Basic education was a product of how good or bad a higher education system was: teachers or managers were products of the higher education system. "You cannot have a strong basic education system without a strong higher education system. We require a massive investment in higher education to improve other segments of education."

The state of higher education in Africa was grave, Oloyede said. Few students had access to universities while infrastructure was lacking. Furthermore, there was a brain drain among academics and a desperate need for a new, young academic corps.

For Oloyede, the relationship among African universities should be complementary rather than competitive: "It's high time that we strengthened one another, supported one another and cooperated more ... as institutions and leaders.

"We need to carry our political leaders along. Through constant engagement, it is essential that various African governments raise the benefits of education as the driving force behind sustainable development. We live in a world where isolationism leads to a dead end whereas collaboration and partnership lead to a good end."

The conference was attended by representatives from universities across Africa.

During the conference, the role of Africa's higher education system as a "force for change" was highlighted given that the continent has more than 300 universities, employs 150,000 academics and serves five million students.

Dr Akpezi Ogbuigwe, Head of Environmental Education and Training under the United Nations Environment Programme, said this role was highly relevant as Africa looked at its environmental resources.

"To ignore the higher education sector in economic sustainable development efforts would be to ignore the power of knowledge residing in the universities and the power of the youth in contributing to responsible, critical and effective decision making in future...," Ogbuigwe said. "There is no doubt that universities are the world's greatest source of ideas and innovation."

One of the keynote speakers, Dr Kevin Urama, Executive Director of the African Technology Policy Studies Network in Kenya, warned that pedagogies and incentive structures at African universities that were discipline-based, focused on the 'publish or perish' approach, and discouraged collaboration, innovation and trans-disciplinarity; from this, the role of sustainable development was limited.

"Most governance structures in higher education are hierarchical and rigid. Knowledge and technology are based on a linear transfer of science," Urama said. "As a cost-cutting measure, most universities adopt a passive approach to teaching and this kills the innovative capacity of students who end up looking for white collar jobs."

He said students were not taught to use their own initiatives to find solutions and that science was perceived as foreign in African society. Many academics preferred science from out of Africa - they published in international journals yet needed to build on the quality of local journals, enabling them to compete internationally.

"We need a complete re-engineering of the system. We need deeper thought on how we learn and what we teach. Education is meant to solve the problems of my grandmother - it's time to think how we can root higher education in African soil."

Uram said questions had to be asked, such as: "Whose curriculum is this? Whose problem is it going to address and who defines a research project?"

There also needed to be a move from the 'publish or perish' approach to more inclusive performance incentives that favour problem-solving, innovation and socialisation of science in Africa, he said.

* In response to the declaration of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environmental Programme, Unesco, the Association of African Universities and other partners launched a partnership across African universities, known as Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities.

The above-mentioned Dr Akpezi Ogbuigwe, Head of Environmental Education and Training under the United Nations Environment Programme, said MESA had drawn on a community of scholars, researchers, teachers, students and government officials in higher education, private sector and civil society.

Some 200 academics from more than 15 departments, including chemistry, earth sciences, engineering, biology, public health and medicine, government, business, economics, religion and law, were working to advance mainstreaming sustainability concerns at their universities.

She said MESA works with universities to:

* Build additional capacity for the systemic integration of environment and sustainability concerns into a wide range of disciplines, faculties, programmes and courses in universities.
* Integrate these concerns into university policies, management practices and student activities.
* Establish themselves as knowledge generators and disseminators that address African realities and development needs.
* Enhance existing capacities and networks.
* Enhance Africa's preparedness for climate change.

At least 50 university courses were being revised and re-oriented towards sustainable development and a regional network of 200 academics from 65 universities in 32 countries had been formed.

Students were involved and a student-led Intervarsity Environmental Network had been established as well as community-level engagement resulting from new approaches to teaching and research.

Other outcomes included changes in research, curriculum and teaching practice; inter country networking and mobilisation, increased engagement with e-learning; synergies with other UN and UNEP initiatives; a systems approach to change initiatives in universities, supported by MESA; and business-university-community partnerships.

Ogbuigwe said that African professors and lecturers from all disciplines were willing and able to implement economic sustainable development change projects in their universities, while university leaders were also willing to provide support to the MESA process.

* Primarashni Gower is a reporter with South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper. This article is republished with permission from the Mail & Guardian.