Bold education action to drive economic transformation

Africa has achieved exceptional economic growth over the past decade, averaging 4.5% a year and underpinned by prudent macroeconomic management. Now we must achieve economic growth that is accompanied by poverty reduction and greater value addition on the continent.

With new mineral discoveries seemingly every month, we need to be able to extract, market and refine these resources. We must also address unprecedented rates of urbanisation and the associated needs for housing, infrastructure and agricultural productivity to feed urban residents as well as increase food security in rural areas.

On the environment front, Africa is bearing a disproportionate impact of climate change, with significant economic impacts – in terms of droughts, floods, rising sea levels – as well as opportunities for joint research that would benefit scientists both within and outside Africa.

There is scope for similar research collaboration between African and foreign scientists in medicine and biodiversity, irrigation, engineering, mining and other fields.

Bold action needed

We will achieve greater value-addition in Africa only if we correct a longstanding imbalance in our education systems.

This imbalance is partly a legacy of Africa’s colonial past, when school curricula were designed to train civil servants, with an emphasis on non-scientific disciplines.

Today, our stock of graduates is still highly skewed towards the humanities and social sciences, while the share of our students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, subjects averages less than 25%. Further, women are under-represented in science and technology-related courses and professions on the continent.

Thanks to Africa’s recent progress in school enrolment, more and more students are completing primary and secondary school.

This new generation of young Africans must be equipped with the modern skills and knowledge they need to find African solutions to Africa’s challenges.

Earlier this year, at a High-Level Forum on Higher Education for Science, Technology and Innovation hosted by the government of Rwanda and the World Bank in Kigali, participating countries and partners called for a bold target – to double the share of African university graduates in science and technology fields within a decade, by 2025.

This is a key objective if we are to transform Africa into a knowledge-based society within a generation.

There are a number of concrete steps that can be taken to realign higher education with the needs of the 21st century and to brighten the prospects of young Africans today.

Partnership is the operative word, between academic institutions both in Africa and abroad, between universities and the private sector, and with new investment partners in Asia and Latin America.

Systemic reforms are also necessary, particularly to improve the quality of education across all levels of the education system, and to make higher education more relevant to the needs of prospective employers.

University collaboration

African universities have much to gain from joining forces with universities abroad, such as through the University of Michigan’s STEM-Africa initiative which has nurtured young scientists and advanced research networks with institutions in Africa, and also their work on training obstetricians and gynaecologists on the continent.

In fact, the African diaspora can play a very critical role in advancing science and technology in their countries of origin by helping generate new interest in supporting the STEM fields in Africa.

A range of stakeholders should be involved in catalysing this partnership, including policy-makers, international financial institutions such as the World Bank Group, and academics – both in Africa and abroad.

In the past, so-called ‘sandwich programmes’ have played an important role in higher education abroad. But universities in Africa need to achieve the next level of home-grown excellence.

A number of American and European universities have campuses and programmes overseas, notably in Asia and the Middle East – and the next frontier is Africa.

One US university has opened a campus in Rwanda, and the first cohort of students from this centre will graduate later this year. By building campuses in Africa, such programmes bring quality education that is adapted to local cultural norms and requirements.

Universities that move quickly will be at a significant advantage as this is a growing market that will only become larger as Africa continues its robust economic growth.

Students must also be able to apply what they learn once they graduate. This requires innovative partnerships and coalitions, as well as targeted reforms.

Following the example of countries like Kenya and Senegal, ministries responsible for higher education should aim to boost private representation on their university boards and engage with the private sector to strengthen links with employers, including on curriculum design.

Private sector partners in Africa can also offer apprenticeships, internships and certification programmes, to help bridge the gap between what is being taught in universities and the realities of the job market, and to invest in the next generation of technicians and corporate recruits.

World Bank initiative

The World Bank is working with eight African governments and the Association of African Universities on the Africa Centers of Excellence initiative, which will strengthen 19 Centers of Excellence in West and Central Africa.

This initiative aims to build and sustain excellence in higher education in Africa, particularly in science and technology, by fostering regional specialisation, concentrating limited top-level faculty and generating knowledge ‘spill-overs’.

This sort of cooperative action is vital to maximise the impact of limited resources and achieve greater regional integration.

Africa’s new partners – countries such as Brazil, China, India and Korea – can play an important role in building human capital in Africa. These countries have rich experience in developing higher education programmes that serve the needs of modernising economies, and have much to offer by way of lessons learned and active partnerships.

The World Bank is working towards building a Partnership for Skills in the Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology – PASET – that brings together new partners and African policy-makers, to catalyse this process especially in high-potential sectors.

Partnership along all these dimensions will ensure commitment to a coherent, coordinated, and accelerated approach to advancing science and technology in Africa and helping young Africans achieve their aspirations.

It will also help firms to find advanced skills and knowledge locally, enabling them to compete more effectively in international markets.

As 11 million young Africans enter the labour market every year over the next decade, we need to make strategic investments in human capital that will drive Africa’s economic transformation.

* Makhtar Diop is World Bank vice president for Africa. The article was written for University World News, and now also appears as an op-ed on the World Bank website.