USAID's transformative strategy for higher education

USAID recently launched a strategic framework for building the capacity of African higher education institutions and systems. Research has indicated that the social and private rates of return for tertiary investments in Sub-Saharan Africa are among the highest in the world.

The strategy was outlined in a February 2014 report titled African Higher Education: Opportunities for transformative change for sustainable development. It deals with the full spectrum of African higher education institutions including public and private universities, polytechnics and colleges.

Research on broader social rates of return from investments in higher education, using data from 545 households in 131 economies from 1970-2011, indicated that tertiary returns were highest in Sub-Saharan Africa at 21.9%, against a world average of 16.8%, the report said.

Broader social rates of return reflect the social value added by higher education, including job creation, good economic and political governance, increased entrepreneurship and increased intergenerational mobility.

Thus there is "a need for a renewed emphasis on investing in higher education", the report stated. This could be done by focusing on human capital formation to promote economic growth, building the knowledge economy, and regional and local development.

Higher education challenges

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the age cohorts of 17 to 20 years are large and will continue to grow over the next several years.

With rising incomes, more adults interested in continuing education, and more employment positions requiring degrees, demand for higher education will grow even faster than increases caused by 17- to 20-year-olds entering higher education.

Enrolment in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown by 8.6% annually over the past 40 years, compared to a world average of 4.8%. However the gross enrolment ratio, or GER, for higher education is the lowest in the world, at 7.6% in 2011. This is far lower than the global average of 30.1%.

"With a very low GER and a large cohort of 17-20 year olds coming along, the potential for rapid increases in demand for higher education is quite great," the report pointed out.

Despite dramatic enrolment increases, public funding for higher education grew by only 6% annually in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1970 to 2008.

"The question of how to educate a rapidly growing number of students with attention to relevance and quality and to financial sustainability, is a question that burdens higher education systems across the continent."

Numerous higher education challenges must be tackled including access, broad governance issues, institutional leadership and management, higher education finance, limited research investment and output, quality and relevance in learning, discovery and public engagement, and information and communication technology.

There are also other important challenges such as higher education-related infrastructure, campus physical facilities and broadband capacity development.

Action plan for sustainable development

Africa's significant higher education challenges will require major reform at both the institutional and country levels.

Programmatic high priorities at the institutional level include professional development of faculty and staff, strengthening capacity to use labour market data to improve quality and relevance, strengthening the use of and experimentation with e-learning, and supporting the search for other-than-public revenue streams.

USAID programmes supporting institution-level priorities include the following:
  • • Individual training of faculty and staff, long-term or short-term.
  • • Developing a comprehensive faculty and staff development strategy bearing in mind both recruitment of new and retention and development of existing faculty and staff.
  • • Establishing a broader support structure for faculty development to maximise the effectiveness of individual training efforts.
  • • Enhancing faculty development efforts by going beyond strengthening disciplinary knowledge through focusing on a suite of essential skills, among them: active teaching; research; employment of new technologies in teaching; and the skills needed to acquire external financial support.
  • • Developing a comprehensive faculty development strategy by examining the incentive structure for faculty and creating policies that better align incentives for individuals with institutional goals.
  • • Assisting institutions to improve quality by investing in internal quality assurance mechanisms.
  • • Assisting institutions to develop ways to more closely interact with stakeholders in the public, private and civil society sectors.
  • • Increasing the use of e-learning tools by existing universities rather than focusing on developing fully online alternatives.
  • • Incentivising international collaboration and public-private partnerships to promote the adoption of innovative, scalable approaches to blended learning.
  • • Establishing regional centres of leadership for the development and implementation of e-learning in higher education.
  • • Developing innovative public-private partnerships to support the funding of institutions.
  • • Strengthening the capacity of institutions to develop a variety of cost-sharing mechanisms where they currently do not exist.
  • • Building capacity to enhance planning and budgeting at the institutional level.
Programmatic high priorities at the country level include assessing and improving the overall quality of higher education institutions and their responsiveness to the labour market, strengthening e-learning and the use of ICTs in higher education, and working with ministries to find solutions to higher education financing challenges.

USAID programmes supporting country-level priorities include the following:
  • • Strengthening higher education quality enhancement and accreditation processes.
  • • Working with governments, specifically ministries of education or higher education commissions or councils, economic ministries and in-country statistics agencies to develop and implement processes for ongoing assessment of the responsiveness of higher education to the labour market.
  • • Facilitating discussions between policy-makers and higher education institutions to design policy to align telecom regulations with the needs of higher education.
  • • Supporting the development of student loan schemes and building capacity to enhance planning and budgeting at the system level.
  • • Developing a higher education funding formula to promote more effective use of financial resources and attainment of higher education objectives.
  • • Strengthening private higher education - by supporting the development of national policies and regulations regarding the effective operation of private higher education institutions; strengthening quality assurance and accreditation procedures; assisting governments to explore alternative funding models for private higher education; and supporting research into the responsiveness of private higher education to the labour market.
Expert views

Commenting on the action plan Calestous Juma, co-chair of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard University, told University World News:

"As higher education is a pillar of the economy, the first step is for countries to adopt visionary economic policies that focus on science, engineering and innovation, which should then help to realign higher education with economic objectives.

"It is much harder to do it the other way round, except when experimenting on the margins with limited expectation of transformational change," Juma pointed out.

John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of research at USAID, said: "The demand for reform must come from African governments, from the African private sector and from African civil society.

"USAID can encourage its partners in all three sectors to work with African institutions of higher education, drawing upon their services and graduates, and encouraging reforms."

For African universities to get the best out of USAID work and ensure its continuity, Daly told University World News: "Africans must think about how their societies benefit from the higher education that they provide.

"A public health physician, a professor of engineering or an industrial manager - one who stays and works in a country - may be of more benefit than an expert in medieval French poetry or American history.

"However, such professionals require the assistance of less fully trained people in complementary roles. Scarce investment resources should be allocated to produce the teams and technology that the country needs."

Further, Daly said: "Educational services demanded for private consumption should presumably be paid for by the consumers themselves.

"The roadmap emphasises building partnerships between US and African institutions of higher education. Clearly, US institutions can provide educational opportunities needed by the future faculty of African institutions, but often that might be better accomplished by scholarships rather than 'partnerships'.

"Moreover, in some cases African faculty might benefit more from opportunities in private firms, government offices or non-academic research laboratories than from academic training.

"Building African higher education is clearly the responsibility of Africans. Perhaps the best thing USAID can do is to seek out the places where Africans are making the best efforts, and find the best ways to use US financing to help them achieve their goals," Daly concluded.