Lessons and challenges for higher education in Africa

There appears to be growing willingness in Africa to provide better oversight to higher education institutions. But academics, including vice-chancellors, are “not taking up the challenge to domesticate and harness the spaces they are given”. This was one of the lessons learned at a convening of higher education leaders and researchers from across the continent.

Three recommendations flowed from the convening. One was for a continental summit on higher education, the second was for higher education to embrace an open data policy, and the third was to strengthen the role and effectiveness of higher education councils.

The “Higher Education Policy, Leadership and Governance Grantee Convening”, held from 14-15 May in Nairobi, brought together grantee organisations of the Carnegie Corporation of New York working in higher education in Africa.

A report on the meeting was recently produced by Funmi Olonisakin, director of the African Leadership Centre and of the Conflict, Security and Development Group at King's College in London.

The Carnegie Corporation, the report noted, had come to realise that people were entering leadership positions in higher education with little or no background in management. Support was needed in the area of academic leadership and policy research in African universities.

From 2007 to this year, among its other work in Africa, Carnegie grants were allocated under the theme “Leadership, Policy and Governance”:
  • • Leadership training grants worth US$4.2 million, including to higher education councils in Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda.
  • • Research and policy grants worth US$2.8 million to the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa, and TrustAfrica and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – CODESRIA – in Senegal.
  • • Dissemination grants worth US$231,100 to the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, and to University World News for an article series on African university leaders.

During the sessions, grantees among other things shared research, practices and findings, examined emerging trends, described how their work had contributed to the transformation of higher education, and identified key learning points, which included the following:
  • • There appeared to be more willingness on the part of governance to provide better oversight to institutions. Academics – faculty and vice-chancellors – were however “not taking up the challenge to domesticate and harness the spaces they are given”.
  • • Some reforms had created spaces for alumni to engage in university governance and to become members of oversight bodies.
  • • In some countries, there was no comprehensive, coherent national higher education policy. As a result: some institutions had veered from their missions; higher education spaces in terms of policy were “primarily dominated by government” with other actors marginalised; and there was a need to initiate and institutionalise national platforms for interaction.
  • • There was growing realisation of the wealth of experience in institutions, which could be harnessed. “Evidence from Ghana is that properly designed higher education programmes will yield participation and results,” the report said.
  • • There was an absence of qualified faculty to take active part in facilitation. “Participation from early-career individuals is crucial because hierarchical structures and varied functions within universities have generated confusion about who has the capacity-responsibility to effect and commit to change in higher education institutions.”
  • • There was “shared ignorance” among university governance agents of the history of universities and characteristics of the higher education area.
  • • University leaders needed to be jointly responsible for the performance of the institution, and to initiate regular dialogue between the different layers of the institution.
  • • Most discussions revolved around a debilitating lack of funding for higher education institutions. But debate should also be about providing solutions.
  • • There was a limited pool of scholars in higher education available for training in critical areas. “Women especially have strong voices and clear ideas.”
  • • There had been a paradigm shift, because those placed to effect change – vice-chancellors and others – were “now part of the narrative on higher education transformation”.

The discussions identified a range of significant challenges facing higher education in Africa.

One was that while new patterns of funding were emerging within universities, “at the same time there is too much engagement in funding. Funding is being engaged as an end in itself, with no real strategic knowledge of what the funds will be committed to,” the report said.

Second, there was too much focus on providing external oversight to universities, while “not enough is being done to cultivate the capacity for evaluation and accountability from within. The role of councils in transformation has not been properly crystallised.”

Third, while frameworks had been created to provide oversight, “research shows that the status quo is still being maintained. There is no new leadership (external or internal) emerging,” noted the report. Fourth, there was consistent conflict between management and staff unions.

Fifth, there were high expectations about what organisations and regulatory bodies should do, but little understanding of the challenges they faced. “Capacities of regulatory and umbrella bodies need to be enhanced.”

Finally, although this was slowly changing, there was not a well-developed and sustained body of higher education scholarship. “There are pockets of expertise.”

Recommendations for ways forward

Three recommendations came out of the Nairobi convening.

The first was to organise a summit on higher education in Africa towards the end of 2014, with the Senegal-based NGO TrustAfrica as the secretariat and a charter on higher education to be the result.

“The summit would present a platform for accountability and reporting that would lead to standardised compliance and African agreement on standards for higher education,” said the report. Actors would use the platform to share expertise, data, advocate and network.

“The summit would lay the groundwork for further collaboration including future initiatives such as the development of African Rankings.”

There was consensus on the importance of higher education embracing an open data policy. It was suggested that the participating organisations and councils could upload information and data onto the African Higher Education Website as open data. A forum to discuss open data was proposed as a means of popularising the approach.

“Participants however noted that most available data was in English, which limited Francophone and Lusophone actors in the higher education sector. The use of multimedia applications such as images, sounds and documentaries was encouraged as a way of engaging different audiences and influencing policy development.”

Finally, it was recommended that the role and effectiveness of higher education councils be strengthened, and that technical and financial assistance be made available to councils to enable them to enhance their impact in the higher education sector.

“It was agreed that moving councils forward was a priority,” the report concluded.