New partnership to support 10,000 new PhDs in Africa

A high-level forum hosted by the Senegalese government in collaboration with the World Bank has recommended training 10,000 new PhD holders in applied sciences, engineering and technology in the next 10 years, in a bid to boost Africa’s capacity for socio-economic transformation and development.

In a detailed Call-to-Action memorandum released by the World Bank on 30 June, participants said there was an urgent need to develop a pool of competent scientists, engineers and technologists in Africa who could increase innovation and create jobs.

The Call-to-Action describes a new partnership that will lead the skills-building agenda and set up a regional scholarship programme among other things. It also stresses the need for technical education to be made more market-relevant.

“We need to find solutions to Africa’s problems and drive the transition to higher productivity and value-added products and services that can compete globally,” it says, highlighting the need to build more skills in applied sciences, engineering and technology across Africa.

The forum held last month and attended by ministers, academics and higher and technical institution representatives, had participants from Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as representatives from Brazil, China, India and South Korea.

Hard-hitting analysis

In a hard-hitting analysis of higher education in Africa, Vera Songwe – the World Bank’s country director for Senegal, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania – told the forum that technical education was undergoing a serious crisis.

“Less than 25% of students in African universities are currently enrolled in science, engineering and technology programmes,” Songwe informed delegates.

According to the World Bank, technical education in Sub-Saharan Africa has been neglected, with low enrolment, poor quality and weak market outcomes.

“Despite a high demand for technical and scientific skills, higher education in most African universities has too often been blind to the needs of the labour market,” said Songwe.

New partnership

Amid efforts to strengthen applied sciences, engineering and technology systems and institutions in Africa, the participating countries established the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology – a platform that will spearhead the skills-building agenda.

According to the Call-to-Action memorandum, the partnership will help to establish postgraduate scholarship programmes in applied sciences, engineering and technology. “The main objective is to double the number of students in such programmes in at least 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa,” it notes.

The partnership will also support the establishment of at least five additional universities in Sub-Saharan Africa with high quality postgraduate studies and applied research.

In its work-plan, the partnership is also expected to support the creation of five regional technical and vocational education centres of excellence for training lecturers to enable resource sharing and training in emerging areas.

Demographic dividend or disaster?

Calling on African countries to support the work of the partnership, Professor Mary Teuw Niane, Senegal’s minister of higher education and research, said more than half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is younger than 25 years – and every year for the next decade, 11 million young people will enter the job market.

“For youth to be competitive in the job market, they will need to be equipped with the right skills to meet the demands of a private sector that increasingly requires science, technology and innovation to spur growth and productivity,” said Niane.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s projected youth bulge is also highlighted by the African Development Bank’s report, The Human Capital Strategy for Africa 2014-2018, which shows that over the next 15 years, about 600 million children born at the beginning of the 21st century will become the continent’s key workforce.

“But to benefit from the demographic dividend and build a highly skilled labour force, Africa’s cohort of high school and technical and vocational education and training graduates needs to increase significantly,” adds the report, published recently.

Labour market disarray

The new partnership is expected to address labour market disarray marked by a rising skills mismatch, low productivity in the informal sector, and unemployment and underemployment against a rising youth population.

According to Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice-president for Africa, the education system has not been adequately responsive to the skills needs of the labour market and this has resulted in too many young people – including university graduates – remaining unemployed while African countries continued to face severe shortages of skilled labour.

Diop, who is one of the key architects of the new strategy to build talent for Africa’s socio-economic transformation, explained to the forum that poor education of workers had become a major impediment to trade, production and competitiveness in Africa.

“Unfortunately, in African universities student enrolments in science, engineering and technology lag seriously behind other fields such as economics, business, law and social sciences,” said Diop in his presentation.

Dr Anthony Madueke, a science specialist at UNESCO’s regional office in Dakar, also noted the large disconnect between graduate skills learned in education institutions and the needs of the labour market. Reducing the skills mismatch required capacity building in applied sciences, engineering and technology programmes as well as improving policy, financing and quality assurance mechanisms.

A Chinese perspective

Providing insights from the Chinese experience, Dr Ying Cheng, executive director of the Centre for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said there was a need for research universities in Africa to be financed properly.

“Such institutions must have support from the government or the private sector,” said Cheng.

Professor Jinghua Cao, deputy director of the Bureau of International Cooperation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, agreed and said that if the new partnership was to follow the Chinese model of research universities, then governments should step in and invest heavily.

“Chinese research and technical universities have strong support from the government,” Cao told the forum.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, also called for commitment from African governments, universities and business communities to realising the objective of training 10,000 PhDs within a decade.

“This is the only way Sub-Saharan African countries can create jobs and retain skilled workers and effectively put an end to the importation of skilled workers for most of the specialised industries in the region,” said Mohamedbhai, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.

Work going forward

As the forum came to a close on 12 June, and work began on finalising the Call-to-Action, the delegates agreed to speedily establish a steering committee to provide strategic guidance on the aims of the partnership and undertake implementation of key actions, especially at the regional level.

A consultative advisory group consisting of a range of stakeholders from business, government, universities and tertiary institutions will contribute to the development and implementation of the partnership. According to the memorandum, design groups will soon be constituted to design regional scholarship programmes.

Quality assurance systems for postgraduate programmes in applied sciences, engineering and technology will be constituted while a partners’ forum will meet regularly to share knowledge and provide ideas on further development of the partnership initiative.