AFRICA: Expand university access, World Bank urges

The World Bank has urged African governments to expand access to post-secondary education and ensure that it serves as a ladder for Africans to climb out of poverty. Obiageli Ezekwesili, the bank's vice-president for Africa, made the call at a conference in Ghana's capital Accra this week.

The conference, convened to discuss ways of transforming the University of Ghana, Legon, into a world-class institution, stressed the need for university training to boost job creation and income-generating opportunities, especially for girls and women and for students who are talented but poor.

Up to 10 million African youngsters join the ranks of job seekers every year.

Ezekwesili said: "Universities need to pay more attention to the quality and relevance of higher education to economic growth and competitiveness."

She added that Ghana was "the perfect example of how the expansion of access to higher education is interlinked with solid economic growth and sharp declines in poverty". University enrolment in Ghana has increased 13-fold to more than 150,000 by 2010, the conference heard.

Elite universities play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and to apply their learning to industries, Ezekwesili said.

A recent World Bank study concluded that a knowledge-intensive approach to development is likely the only path for sustained development in Africa in an interwoven and interdependent global economy.

To bring about the game-changing transformations needed in Africa's tertiary education sector, Ezekwesili argued, the approach must be "business unusual".

Students must work hard and strive to excel at all times if African universities are to attain world-class status. Faculty members must continue to make enormous sacrifices to foster education. And universities must have a more dynamic and visionary leadership at the helm.

She observed that Ghana's founding president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, probably assumed that Africans would prioritise achieving the education kingdom as a prerequisite for seeking the political kingdom and hoping that the economic kingdom would be added onto them.

"We need to leverage our collective strengths across national boundaries and build linkages with existing pools of world-class knowledge," she said, calling for more dynamic and visionary leadership of African universities and for regional collaboration among African higher education institutions keen to achieve excellence, particularly in science, technology and innovation.

World-class universities would emerge in Africa only if governments accepted that these institutions have to be run by education specialists, not political appointees; and only if they were treated as laboratories where students and academics could experiment, think independently and express themselves freely.

Ezekwesili also stressed the importance of believing in the creative genius of Africans to find solutions to problems.

She called on African governments to do more with research grants and to help create the kind of environment that made it possible for people like the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, and the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, to succeed - despite being college dropouts.

With about 30% of its budget spent on education, Ghana has grown the number of its public and private universities to more than 120. Between 2004 and 2011, the conference was told, World Bank funding to support innovation in teaching and learning in Ghana amounted to US$35 million.

But across Africa only about 6% of the potential tertiary education age group is enrolled at a tertiary institution, compared to a world average of 25.5%. Nine of the 10 countries with the lowest tertiary enrolment in the world are in Africa. It was imperative to expand access to post-secondary eduction on the continent, the conference heard.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, said he was focusing on seven areas to pursue the vision of making Legon a world-class university.

These included promoting academic excellence through enhanced teaching, learning and leadership training, and through significantly expanded and relevant research and extension. In addition, there was the need to overhaul governance arrangements, teaching and research; to ensure better management of assets and facilities; and to scale up efforts towards equal opportunities in terms of gender and diversity.

The conference stressed the importance of private-sector participation in funding universities, warning that African governments would never have enough money to shoulder the responsibility of funding higher education on their own.

The private sector has a stake in ensuring that students graduating from universities are skilled workers, innovators and entrepreneurs, able to translate their knowledge into contributions at work or in society, participants agreed.

The World Bank has called on African governments to encourage private sector participation through policies and actions such as tax incentives and access to student loans.