AFRICA: Pan-African University close to starting

Kenya has been selected as the East African host of the planned Pan-African University, a specialised institution comprising a network of universities that is being created to help supply the continent's high-level human capital. This ends a five-month stalemate between countries in the region that had been squabbling over who the host would be.

The choice was made at a recent Conference of Ministers of Education meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa organised by the 53-member African Union, which is driving the project.

East Africa is to establish a regional hub for basic sciences, technology and innovation as well as satellite campuses. The African Union, or AU, is releasing a report detailing where satellite colleges will be based in the region, and these campuses will provide opportunities for other countries.

Some of Africa's four other geographical regions - North, West, Central and Southern Africa - are at a more advanced stage than East Africa in launching Pan-African University hubs and satellite campuses.

West Africa will focus on earth and life sciences, with the hub based at Lagos University in Nigeria. Southern Africa will concentrate on space sciences, based in South Africa, and a Central Africa hub in Cameroon will cover social and human sciences and governance. North Africa will host a hub for water and energy sciences, though the host has not been decided.

Sources who attended the Addis Ababa meeting said the decision was hard to make, as most East African countries had expressed interest in hosting the hub. At play were national interests, with most nations aware that being the host would raise their educational profile ahead of regional integration and promote their country as a regional economic leader.

Kenya, Sudan and Uganda were the main contenders for the hub during sometimes heated proceedings at the Addis Ababa meeting.

Earlier, representatives from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Eritrea and Seychelles said they had not been asked to express interest in hosting the institution, a hitch that stalled the decision to pick the winner by two months.

The ministers had met in April in Nairobi to try to hammer out a decision, but failed because of the disagreement. Other nations in the region are Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda and Somalia.

Kenya's Higher Education Permanent Secretary Chrispus Kiamba confirmed to University World News that the country had been picked. Kenya has 30 universities, seven of which are public and the rest privately run. It is not clear yet which university the government will select to host the hub, which could heighten soaring competition among institutions.

The AU has said the Pan-African University was born of the need to strengthen higher education in Africa, and capitalise on the performances of strong universities. It is envisaged as a continental network of institutions training postgraduate students.

The aim is to create a specialist university network that contributes to Africa's development and helps to reverse the continent's under-achievement in science by training a critical mass of people with high-level skills in key areas identified as drivers of growth. It will also support research, encourage collaboration between scientists within Africa and in the diaspora, and promote greater collaboration between universities and industry.

New higher education infrastructure will not be constructed, at least not for now. Rather, existing universities will be used as satellites across the continent. The African Union, international partners and host institutions will support the university financially and most funding will be spent on bursaries for students.

Signalling the AU is getting closer to rolling out the Pan-African University, the union launched a competition to solicit designs for its official logo, to establish a visual identity. The winning design will be announced within a month.

The higher education working group of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, ADEA, has relocated to the African Union to boost the commission's work in higher education and will also support the fledgling Pan-African University.

But there are concerns over lack of funding which continues to dog education across Africa, raising doubts about the sustainability of the university network.

"Much as African governments appreciate the core value of tertiary education and research, the reality in terms of public investment, general allocation of resources and policy focus seems to belie this appreciation. In general, the system is under-funded all over the continent," said the AU in a concept paper on the continental university.

Since 1979, when African intellectuals recommended that governments committed 1% of gross domestic product to science and technology, nothing much has changed. Subsequent meetings in 1981, 1987 and 2007 revealed that almost all countries were far from meeting that target because of lack of political commitment and a host of other problems.

The impending launch of the Pan-African University comes at a time when the African Union is scaling up efforts to improve quality in Africa's universities. It is seeking to subject institutions to fresh scrutiny, with the aim of establishing the quality and relevance of degree courses being offered at universities across the continent.

Kenya's Education Minister Professor Sam Ongeri, who is also chair of the Conference of Ministers of Education, said education was critical for Africa's development and integration because of its role in developing high-level human resources. African countries should share knowledge and experience in order to improve the quality of and access to education continent-wide, he said after the June meeting at African Union headquarters.

Deputy chair of the African Union Commission, Erastus Mwencha, stressed that Africa's nearly one billion people were "looking to education to be the engine for economic and social growth on the continent".