AFRICA: Higher education space gaining momentum

Efforts to create an African Higher Education Space are gaining momentum, with three key areas - qualifications recognition, harmonisation of systems and quality assurance - actively supported by the African Union, regional economic bodies, university associations and international organisations. But far greater political will on the part of governments is needed.

"Creating a higher education and research space fits with the African Union's harmonisation strategy for African higher education," Dr Goolam Mohamedbhai, former Secretary General of the Association of Universities (AAU) and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, told the AAU's biennial conference in Stellenbosch last week.

"Higher education is one of the African Union's eight priorities, and has been identified by almost every regional economic commission as a major area of reform. There have been pledges of support for African higher education from many international development and funding agencies, and even from the emerging economies of Brazil, China and India.

"The revitalisation of higher education by the African Union (AU) Commission is now well underway."

The 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education identified an African higher education and research area as a priority, and suggested that it should be developed through institutional, national, regional and continental collaboration.

There are huge challenges, chief among them problems associated with the massification and under-funding of higher education, low research and postgraduate training output, and highly disparate higher education systems - Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone and Arabophone - flowing from the colonial era.

However, Mohamedbhai told the conference, the case for a higher education space is compelling.

"Africa desperately needs strong higher education to assist in its rapid development. It cannot afford to lose its trained manpower to other regions. It needs to produce, seek and adapt knowledge to overcome its developmental challenge. Africa must also be part of global knowledge economy - hence it must be locally relevant and globally competitive

"Because of limited resources, this can only be achieved by collaboration among African countries and their higher education systems. Hence the need for a strong continental higher education 'space'."

Soon after the world conference, the working group on higher education of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) decided to explore the concept through an analytical study.

ADEA convened key stakeholders for a brainstorming workshop held in Ghana's capital Accra, headquarters of the AAU, last December, to discuss how to proceed with the study.

There were two important outcomes - a Concept Note on an African Higher Education and Research Space (AHERS), and detailed proposals to undertake the study through research cluster teams, Mohamedbhai said.

The Concept Note has been published in four languages and widely distributed. It calls for implementing the Arusha Convention on degree recognition, harmonising degree structures, promoting quality assurance, boosting research and postgraduate training through regional centres of excellence, encouraging open and distance learning, the effective use of ICT, and building on regional initiatives.

ADEA has proposed a set of studies on a range of topics through cluster teams comprising a leader and several regional researchers, who have been identified. Their reports - expected to be completed in five months - would be collected into a synthesis publication, which would provide the basis for solid proposals for an African higher education and research space.

"Creating an African Higher Education Space" was one of the four themes of the AAU Conference of Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents (COREVIP), which was hosted by Stellenbosch University in South Africa from 30 May to 3 June.

The 'space' was discussed by one of four working groups convened to take forward the conference themes, and its findings were presented by rapporteur Alice Sena Lamptey, who is in charge of higher education for ADEA and a consultant to the African Union.

She said the group agreed there was a need to define terms. For instance, was the 'space' national, regional or continental and how might these spaces interact with and reinforce each other? And should a top-down or a bottom-up approach should be taken? Would the space be only for universities or all tertiary institutions, how might institutions articulate, and how would an African space be different to the European one?

The Arusha Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education in Africa came into existence in 1981, and has been promoted by UNESCO. Yet few in higher education know of its existence, several delegates said.

Arusha is a legal instrument that requires signatures by states and aims to encourage greater mobility in Africa. It has been revised to take major higher education changes into account, the last time in 2007.

The convention's main components are recognition by states of qualifications delivered by other states, for admission into higher education institutions and into professions, and recognition of periods of study in one state for the purpose of completing studies in another.

Recent developments have been decisions for a regional follow-up committee to be established at UNESCO-BREDA, the organisation's regional bureau for education in Africa, and for a National Competent Authority and National Information Centre to be set up.

The working group recommended that the AAU circulate copies of Arusha to member universities, develop and implement a sensitisation and advocacy strategy, include other networks outside the AAU, and collaborate with UNESCO-BREDA and the African Union in monitoring the convention's implementation.

It called on universities to post the convention on their websites and organise seminars on it for senates, councils, staff and students. Further, Arusha should be integrated into institutional strategic plans and universities should play an active role in implementation.

For their part, governments should sign and ratify the convention, align related regional protocols, promote Arusha through national higher education commissions, fully involve universities in its implementation, and ensure that private universities are also involved.

"Concerted efforts are needed to get countries to sign," Lamptey told the conference.

On the harmonisation of degree structures, Lamptey pointed out: "For qualifications to be recognised, a framework of comparable qualifications of different African higher education is needed."

Not all countries need same degree structures or nomenclature, but degrees must be comparable to internationally recognised higher education cycles - bachelors, masters and PhDs. It is important to have national, regional and continental qualification frameworks.

Progress has been made by Francophone African countries, which are implementing reforms to align their systems with Europe's Bologna process LMD system (a bachelor degree after three years, a masters after five and a doctorate after eight).

The working group proposed that the AAU create a database of credit systems in different African regions to facilitate the development of a continental credit transfer system.

The association should lead the process of creating a continental framework by developing a plan and a budget, should promote the creation of national and regional qualification frameworks where they do not exist, and should "assist in facilitating the recognition of private institutions in light of the changing landscape of higher education in Africa".

The group agreed that for an African higher education space to be effective, universities must satisfy quality assurance requirements. But as elsewhere in the world, there are considerable challenges and countries are at very different stages of implementing quality assurance.

"Both institutional and national quality assurance systems are still weak in Africa. Challenges include high cost of implementation and lack of trained personnel," said Lamptey. Quality assurance is especially important in Africa because of the growing presence of private and church-based higher education.

The African Quality Assurance Network (AfriQAN) has been established to provide assistance to institutions concerned with quality assurance, in collaboration with the AAU and the Global Initiative for Quality Assurance Capacity.

"But it now needs to be sustained," Lamptey continued, and the African Union is currently implementing a continental Quality Rating Mechanism.

The working group proposed that the AAU play a more active role in promoting quality assurance, including by strengthening quality provisions in its strategic plan and supporting and promoting a greater role for AfriQAN.

The association should also assist in developing guidelines for quality assurance for open and distance learning, facilitate the comparability of national quality assurance systems, and provide leadership in building consensus on "harmonised and more robust" quality systems".

The European higher education space was created after the lengthy process of regional integration under the European Union and a decade of Bologna reforms, supported by a strong EU and national government buy-in.

Delegates pointed out that Africa has a long way to go before achieving similarly enabling conditions, and that a serious problem is lack of active (if not ideological) support among governments.

"We need to race to catch-up with the world," was the AAU conference refrain. In this case, it is a 'space' race.