Presidents to attend African Higher Education Summit

There will be at least four African presidents, three former heads of state, numerous cabinet ministers, the chair of the African Union Commission and a former United Nations secretary-general among the 500 people who will attend the first African Higher Education Summit, to be held in the Senegalese capital Dakar from 10-12 March, it was announced last week. The aim is to get political leaders to sign up for the continent-wide revitalisation of universities.

The summit’s main objective, said Senegal’s Higher Education and Research Minister Mary Teuw Niane, was to develop and adopt “an action plan that will transform African higher education over the next 50 years”.

The summit charter, or action plan, would contribute to the development of the higher education component of the continent’s development plan, called Africa Agenda 2063.

Topics to be tackled at the summit include graduate employability, gender, science, technology and innovation, nation building and democratic citizenship, equity and access, differentiation and harmonisation, the role of business in revitalising higher education, and quality, excellence and relevance.

“We look forward to hosting our guests from different parts of the continent and the world and to the task of both identifying issues facing the African higher education sector and developing common solutions,” said Niane.

Who will be there

Among the leaders at the summit, which has the theme “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, will be Senegal’s President Macky Sall, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chair of the African Union Commission, and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan will attend, along with former presidents – South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa.

There will also be ministers of education, finance, and science and technology, higher education managers, scholars, business leaders and representatives of unions and students.

The summit is being organised by TrustAfrica, a pan-African development organisation based in Dakar, with 11 partners.

The partners are Senegal’s government, African Union Commission, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, UN Africa Institute for Development and Economic Planning, Association of African Universities, African Development Bank, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Carnegie Corporation of New York, MasterCard Foundation and World Bank.

The summit

There was renewed focus on the importance of higher education to Africa’s development, said Dr Omano Edigheji of TrustAfrica, director of the summit.

“This presents an opportunity to work together towards a common vision – ensuring that efforts to create a robust African higher education and research space are both relevant and responsive to the needs of the continent and its people in the 21st century."

Edigheji said there was a need to establish strategic alliances across social and economic sectors in order to develop the human capacity needed to achieve a new future for Africa. With the continuing boom in enrolment figures and the rising number of higher education institutions, there was an urgent need to build a quality higher education sector.

The summit is the culmination of a three-year initiative undertaken by TrustAfrica in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation and others to broaden the dialogue about higher education in Africa. Dialogues were held in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.

Dr Tendai Murisa, executive director of TrustAfrica, said: “What we immediately identified from this work was that there were no inclusive national and continental platforms for stakeholders to come together to discuss and seek solutions to the issues facing the African higher education sector.

“The continental summit will therefore provide a platform for key stakeholders to engage and come up with an agenda to transform the sector.”

Aicha Bah Diallo, chair of TrustAfrica’s board of trustees, said open dialogue and meaningful engagement about issues was often lacking in African higher education.

“Because we are all one continent, one Africa, the problems facing the sector are similar across the continent. We therefore need a common and collective strategic approach to revitalise Africa’s tertiary education sector,” she said.

“We cannot wait for the solutions to come from donors or from the West. As Africans we have to take the lead, while working with our friends abroad.”

Africans, she said, needed to think seriously about the declining revenues of higher education institutions, meeting growing demand for higher education, poor infrastructure, inadequate staffing, insufficient research, outdated curricula and poor regulatory regimes.

“We need to act and act now, because the reality is that Africa cannot progress if we do not address the current crisis facing our tertiary institutions,” Diallo continued.

Senegal and the summit

Mary Teuw Niane, the higher education and research minister, said Senegal had “undertaken significant efforts to reform its higher education and research system”.

The reforms were the outcome of a lengthy process of national dialogue initiated through a national conference in 2013 “with a view to finding structural and sustainable solutions for a quality higher education and research system that is responsive to the needs of our society”.

The conference adopted 78 recommendations that led to 11 decisions by President Macky Sall that year. “These major decisions have been the benchmark for the implementation of important reforms in the higher education sector.”

“The objective diagnosis made by actors of the National Consultation on the Future of Higher Education, CNAES, helped define the strategic directions of our higher education system,” said Niane. These were structured around developing technology and science, the use of ICTs in education and research, student success and employability, improved governance and massive investment in higher education and research.

“The challenges facing Africa in the field of higher education are both numerous and diverse,” said Niane.

“The massive flow of high school graduates, the nagging issue of reception facilities, recurrent crises in funding our universities, training that is unresponsive to the needs of the labour market, etc, feature among the issues that regularly lead African universities into crisis situations, the solutions to which require the consideration of all African governments and their partners.”

Niane said the summit should facilitate a sharing of experiences and practices in Africa and around the world to revitalise higher education and research.

Considering the “enormous financial challenges facing higher education”, the summit would provide the opportunity to convince key decision-makers, political leaders, foundations and business leaders of the need for investment in higher education which, the minister said, would be “a wager on the future of Africa”.