HE Summit to call for more graduates, PhDs and research

Expanding tertiary education enrolment and postgraduate training, and improving low graduation rates and conditions of service for academics, are among the priority issues to be debated at the major African Higher Education Summit being held in Senegal next month, says Dr Beatrice Njenga, head of education at the African Union Commission.

More than 500 delegates including African presidents and ministers of education, senior government officials, vice-chancellors, private sector leaders, international partners, higher education scholars, and union and student representatives are due to attend the three-day continental gathering from 10-12 March in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

The summit, whose theme is “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, is expected to draw up a charter to drive the development of higher education in the coming decade and beyond.

Njenga told University World News that while Africa had witnessed tremendous growth in higher education, the continental gross rate of tertiary education enrolment still stood at only 10% against a world average of 27%.

“Our objective of creating robust higher education is embedded within the African Union’s development agenda of the ‘Africa We Want in 2063’,” said Njenga. The summit would focus sharply on challenges facing the sector across the continent.

Concept paper

According to the summit concept paper, while tertiary education expansion in Africa has led to greater access, in most cases quality has been comprised.

In the last three decades, enrolment in African universities had been increasing rapidly in order to absorb rising demand for higher education fuelled by the massification of primary and secondary education.

Amid efforts to meet burgeoning demand, governments have deregulated higher education and encouraged the establishment of private universities and privately-sponsored students in public universities – so-called ‘parallel’ students.

“But deregulation of the higher education sector has resulted in contradictory outcomes, as higher enrolment rates under conditions of limited resources have contributed to lower quality,” the concept paper points out.

Most universities have been unable to recruit additional academic staff to cope with increased enrolment, either because of a shortage of funds or the unavailability of qualified candidates. In addition, the African professoriate is aging rapidly.

Njenga noted that staff shortages in African universities have been exacerbated by the brain drain. “Besides general staff shortages, most African universities are faced with challenges of retaining lecturers with higher academic qualifications,” she said.

Ways forward

The Dakar summit is expected to pave the way forward on how to overcome limited postgraduate opportunities in African universities, low graduation rates and discouraging conditions of service for lecturers and professors.

According to the concept paper, delegates are aware that many universities across the continent do not yet have adequate research capabilities and many of their contributions have been found not to be relevant to development needs.

“The slow expansion of postgraduate education has constrained innovation, as most research skills are commonly acquired during masters and doctoral study,” says the concept paper.

The crux of the matter is that the lack of academics with PhDs has adversely affected the quality and depth of instruction provided to undergraduate students and the ability to provide postgraduate students with adequate supervision.

Njenga said the African Union Commission delegation at the summit would encourage African governments to start spending more than 1% of gross domestic product on research.

According to UNESCO, as a whole Africa spends less than 0.5% of GDP on research – a low level of funding that poses a major challenge to the continent’s development agenda.

The conference aims to chart the way forward on how the continent could avoid further marginalisation for lack of knowledge creation through research and innovation. Currently Africa has only 35 scientists and engineers per one million inhabitants and its annual share of global research publication is less than 1.5%.

Although several centres of research excellence have been opened across Africa through the African Union Commission and the World Bank, the desire to improve universities is likely to result in a call for the creation of more competitive regional centres to enhance quality, research and postgraduate education.

The most worrying issue of all is that in most African countries, the rise in tertiary enrolment has not translated into a comparable improvement in employment opportunities and most students and parents have started doubting the value of higher education.

The summit will discuss the mismatch between the number and type of graduates and the needs of the labour market. Labour experts are expected to raise issues regarding the emerging ‘triple crisis’ of graduate unemployment, underemployment and unemployability.

According to Njenga, the summit will highlight challenges besetting the African higher education sector and in essence create a shared vision for the future. Its agenda is to harness fragmented interventions in order to spur progress in African higher education – but only time will tell whether this goal will be achieved.

* University World News is a media partner to the summit.

** The summit’s organising partners are TrustAfrica, Senegal’s government, the African Union Commission, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, UN African 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.