Summit to forge the future of African higher education

The African Higher Education Summit to be held in March 2015 in Senegal will provide an energising space for African political and university leaders, experts and organisations – and friends of the continent – to revitalise interest in the sector and talk about the future. “This is a call to action. The summit will mark the beginning of a new agenda for higher education in Africa,” says Dr Tendai Murisa, director of the summit’s lead organiser TrustAfrica.

“At TrustAfrica we do not claim expertise on higher education. We claim expertise in bringing Africans and friends of Africa to a space where they can talk,” Murisa says. In this case, it will be a gathering of all higher education actors.

“We see dots that are not connected. There are many disparate activities taking place. That’s why we came up with the idea of a continental summit that can link the dots and maybe create a new synergy.”

Also on board with organising the summit is the African Union Commission, Association of African Universities, CODESRIA – Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – the UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the African Development Bank.

The government of Senegal is the host. “From the North we’ve got the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the MasterCard Foundation and World Bank,” says Murisa, who took over the leadership of TrustAfrica last Wednesday 1 October.

“We think all these organisations are movers and shakers in their own right, and that by bringing them together into a place we can revitalise interest and try to make sure that higher education is back on the policy agenda."

The African Higher Education Summit will be held in Dakar from 10-12 March 2015 under the theme “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”. It will be limited to around 500 participants.

Summit aims and organisation

“One of the key processes that as TrustAfrica we are keen on influencing is the African Union-led Africa 2063 agenda – what Africa should look like in 50 years time. We think that higher education should be part of that kind of conversation,” Murisa explains.

“If higher education is going to play a central role for Africa’s transformation, what kind of investment is needed. And if higher education is going to contribute to increased growth, what kind of graduates do we need? What does the relationship between the marketplace and the university in Africa look like, and what needs to be done?”

The summit organisers are in the preliminary stages of reaching out to people, Murisa says. “We have been pleasantly surprised at the response of the government of Senegal, which has not only accepted being the official host but has also committed itself financially to the summit and is helping us to invite African heads of state.

“That has helped us to make sure that the summit is considered official. It is now appearing on the African Union calendar as an important event. So at a political level there is huge buy-in, which is what we were hoping for. This is one of the major milestones we have had in terms of preparing for the summit.”

The summit is making room for 500 delegates but is going to struggle to contain the numbers. The partners alone have 250 guests they would like to invite. “We cannot have more than 500 people or the summit will become difficult to manage,” Murisa stresses.

“There is overwhelming interest and we’re going to be seeing more. Our fear is that we are going to be overwhelmed by the demand from people who want to be at this meeting.”

In a way, says Murisa, the conference has already started. Papers have been commissioned and a team created to solicit input into what will be called the African Declaration on Higher Education.

The organisers are talking to lecturer and non-academic staff unions, universities and students across the continent, seeking wide input as there will be space for only limited representation in Dakar. “We’re trying to ensure that we get representation of all the different stakeholders.”

The summit itself will not be about presenting papers but about holding lively panels that provoke discussion. The website will feature background papers that participants – those in Dakar and those who cannot physically be there – can engage with and make input into.

“Our website will be live throughout the conference and will be used as a platform for soliciting inputs into the declaration and the other processes,” says Murisa. The main sessions will be live-streamed; there will be podcasts and feedback will be enabled and encouraged.

“One of the advocacy points is to make sure that African higher education gets to the top of the African Union’s agenda and that national governments also reprioritise. We’re hoping that what we do will trigger action beyond the two days.”


For the past seven years TrustAfrica has developed and run activities in three areas: governance, African philanthrophy and equitable development – the area into which higher education falls. It has been awarded 435 grants totalling nearly US$20.5 million.

The trust describes itself as being “on the frontlines of philanthropic efforts to address some of Africa's most daunting governance challenges”.

Murisa has been with TrustAfrica since 2009, joining the organisation after completing his PhD at Rhodes University in South Africa, doing a sociological thesis on how communities are organised, how they organise themselves and how they respond to external crises.

Before that he was working for the Harare-based African Institute for Agrarian Studies as a programme manager. He began coordinating TrustAfrica’s programme on agriculture, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The six-country initiative is building an advocacy movement to make sure that governments are held accountable for and remain committed to what they have signed on to for agriculture.

Last year Murisa became programme director, before taking over the helm at TrustAfrica from retiring Dr Akwasi Aidoo last week.

“I think I’m one of the most fortunate Africans. I’ve been given an opportunity to lead an institution that has a healthy donor base, a vibrant staff and a very engaged board. But we do not want to rest on our laurels to say we are okay,” says Murisa.

TrustAfrica is conducting an audit of programme gaps. “We’re also beginning to look at what exactly Africa’s needs are, and position ourselves at the centre of that.”

For instance, the trust sees “interesting opportunities” in the sustainable development goals being developed by the United Nations – especially goal 16, about institutionalisation of the rule of law, an area close to the trust’s heart and activities.

“Beyond governance issues, we also want to see ourselves at the centre of innovation. We have come to understand that even though Africa is rising, there are still a lot of inequalities, there are still challenges,” Murisa says.

“We want to see how we can make sure that our youths going through higher education are relevant to the marketplace. Besides making them relevant to formal sector jobs, we are looking at how to create opportunities for them.”

The trust has a business investment initiative that looks at constraints facing small to medium enterprises. “We are trying to articulate that programme with our higher education activities to say, beyond jobs, what kind of opportunities can be created for African youth?”

After the summit

The trust sees the summit as an opportunity to broaden its higher education programme, which has been working in four countries to hold policy dialogues and is lead by Dr Omano Edigheji, a consultant.

“We hope these will continue but at a higher level and will also include other stakeholders beyond the university-based academics who we targeted in the first round.”

There will be a donor roundtable at the summit, which will begin to identify investment opportunities and priorities. “Most importantly, we will need to see what comes out of the declaration and how we can work with the African Union to make sure that it is part of an official process that heads of state adopt,” Murisa says.

The declaration coming out of Dakar may be quite loose, but the aim will be to forge a template that can be adopted as a protocol or charter by heads of state. “Then it should cascade into national contexts.

“We’re wanting to make sure there is enough energy on the ground to enable people to keep leaders accountable for processes they will have signed onto at a regional level, to keep asking questions and keep the conversation interesting, and to make sure that there’s increasing investment in higher education.”