Continental HE challenges identified ahead of summit

Consultations with stakeholders across Africa have thrown up shared challenges that will be tackled at next year’s major summit on “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, says Dr Omano Edigheji of TrustAfrica, the summit's director. Among the big issues are harmonisation, investment, regulatory frameworks, the private sector, graduate employability and the curriculum.

“One of the things coming out of the consultative processes is a general excitement that it is time to elevate higher education to the top of the continent’s transformation agenda,” Edigheji told University World News.

“People believe this is a summit whose time has come. Despite challenges, there is a need to reposition and revitalise the sector to be able to respond to the needs of the 21st century.”

Crucially, the summit is being supported by the African Union Commission, actively hosted by the government of Senegal, and will be attended by numerous heads of state and ministers as well as key higher education stakeholders and leaders.

Messages coming out of the consultations will feed into the summit process, and into the drafting of a declaration that will, it is hoped, have teeth because of the summit’s political clout. “Our goal is to come out of the summit with an action plan that will mobilise the continent around higher education,” says Edigheji.

The ‘African Higher Education Agenda 2063’ will be in line with Africa’s new continental development framework, Agenda 2063.

TrustAfrica is one of 11 partners to the African Higher Education Summit, which will take place in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 10-12 March 2015 under the theme “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”.

As there will only be space at the summit for 500 people – “a small number for a continent of some billion plus people”, Edigheji points out – for all voices to be heard and for a summit charter to be inclusive, the consultative process with stakeholders is crucial.

So far there have been five consultative meetings, involving the governments of Rwanda and Senegal, the World Bank, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture – RUFORUM – South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The most recent was organised by numerous partners including TrustAfrica and the African Development Bank, and was held during the “2nd Ministerial Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation” in Rabat, Morocco, from 14-17 October.

Issues of concern

TrustAfrica, which leads philanthropic efforts to tackle African challenges, has held national higher education policy dialogues in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. The similarities of the challenges the countries face were startling, and supported the need for a continental platform on which pan-African stakeholders could engage.

The summit partners* have selected 10 possible sub-themes as the basis for discussion and to guide papers that are being drafted based on documentation currently available. The sub-themes are:
  • • 1. Investment in the higher education sector.
  • • 2. Quality, excellence, relevance, equity and access.
  • • 3. Science, technology and innovation.
  • • 4. Higher education and democratic citizenship: social sciences, humanities and culture.
  • • 5. Harmonisation of African higher education.
  • • 6. Differentiation and diversification.
  • • 7. Graduate employability and African labour market.
  • • 8. Governance and regulatory regimes.
  • • 9. The African indigenous knowledge system.
  • • 10. Private sector and higher education.
The consultative meetings have kicked up a range of shared concerns across Africa’s regions, echoing the sub-themes. The following are just some of them.


One issue is lack of higher education harmonisation, which constrains the mobility of African students and academics and impacts negatively on the continent, says Edigheji. “There is a need for an African higher education space, and harmonisation is at the centre of that.”

The summit has consulted some harmonisation initiatives already undertaken by the African Union Commission, UNESCO and others. At the Morocco meeting, participants stressed the importance of qualifications harmonisation and a legal framework for graduate mobility.

Need for investment

The need to increase investment in higher education is agreed by stakeholders. “We’re not just talking about finances but also human resources, investment in technology and infrastructure and so on.

“The summit has to come out clearly with an investment mechanism that will contribute to repositioning the sector for the 21st century so that it meets the needs and aspirations of the continent,” Edigheji stresses.

A suggestion from Morocco was that increased investment from governments and the private sector should be accompanied by efforts to boost philanthropic donations from former university alumni and university fund-raising among foundations and wealthy individuals, a la the American model.

Regulatory framework

A major concern coming out of the consultations is weak governance and regulatory frameworks for higher education.

This impedes development of regional and continental higher education areas but also manifests in, for instance, branch campuses of foreign universities being established and growth of private higher education happening without proper regulation.

Also, says Edigheji, most countries do not have a separate ministry for higher education and so the sector does not get the requisite attention, and relationships between higher education, agriculture, science and technology is not clearly articulated. “Governance and regulation is a challenge and needs to be acted upon.”

Social dialogues

There is general lack of trust among stakeholders in the sector. This has contributed to strikes by academics and protests by students and require attention and collaboration. “Partnerships and social dialogues will be key in moving forward,” Edigheji says, and have been stressed in the consultations.

Quality and relevance

Many stakeholders agree that quality is a major challenge for African higher education. “Africa is producing graduates who are not only unemployed but are also unemployable. That has to do with the African employment landscape, but also with the curriculum, which seems to be obsolete,” says Edigheji.

Delegates in Morocco highlighted weak links between higher education and the job market, and the need for more skills training, entrepreneurship education and a holistic approach that articulates school with higher education.

Ownership and implementation

Participants in Morocco stressed the need to ensure ‘ownership’ of the summit by key stakeholders in Africa, including organisations working in higher education, and to build on the great deal of work that has been done in the past three decades.

Ownership of the summit is key, Edigheji agrees, and it is why TrustAfrica has spent the past year building a coalition with 10 other partners. Organisations interested in becoming partners should contact TrustAfrica.

It is also why the consultative meetings across the continent have been and are being held. Participants, and indeed all stakeholders, are invited to send policy papers to the organisers, to ensure that they shape the summit process – and its outcome.

In Morocco, participants were concerned about lack of action after the summit. There is a history of declarations on higher education, but less of a history of implementing them. The summit action plan should realistic, and stakeholders should be held accountable through verifiable commitments.

Action plan

Coming out of all the consultations generally, says Edigheji, is that “everybody recognises that we are in an emergency situation. The problems are inter-related – you cannot address one without addressing the other.

"That is why there is excitement around the need to come up with a comprehensive action plan to transform the sector.”

There is a convergence of views and the great challenge for the summit is going to be to come up with an implementable action plan for the next 50 years.

Some actions will be more difficult than others, but Edigheji believes that much could be achieved simply by working smarter.

For instance, there is already an enormous range of interventions in higher education, with governments and organisations and the private sector taking initiatives. “But there is lack of coordination, and as a consequence some of the potential benefits of all this activity are lost. So out of the summit should come greater coordination.”

Further, while the summit focus is on higher education, the sector will not be able to achieve its goals and objectives without tackling pipeline issues. So the summit will also have a bearing on other sub-sectors in education.

“For me there is excitement. Given the damage that has been done to the continent’s higher education from the 1980s, given the under-investment that has happened and the near collapse of the sector, Africans are now coming out to say, look, we need to come together and come up with an agenda to shape the sector in order for the continent to develop.”

While the summit’s main goal is to forge an action plan for the future of higher education in Africa, it will also be part of a process of revitalisation and not its end, says Edigheji – the action plan will require further consultations to ensure its implementation.

* The summit partners are: TrustAfrica, 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, the African Development Bank, Carnegie Corporation of New York, MasterCard Foundation and the World Bank.

* University World News is a media partner to the African Higher Education Summit.