African Dialogue for political, HE and business leaders

The African Union Commission is planning to convene an African Dialogue later this year to facilitate conversation between political, academic and business leaders about what needs to be done to move the continent towards inclusive growth and prosperity, commission Chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told the African Higher Education Summit.

She was giving the keynote speech on Tuesday evening at the opening ceremony of the summit, held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 10-12 March under the theme “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, sharing the platform with President Macky Sall.

Dlamini-Zuma described the summit – which attracted 250 political and higher education leaders from across the continent, including some 50 vice-chancellors – as “probably the most important gathering of Africans that will take place this year”.

While it was critical to have such a conversation among stakeholders in higher education, it also needed to be broadened to encompass Africa’s development, which should inform what universities and researchers do.

“Our continent will not rise, our continent will not develop into a prosperous, peaceful, people-centred continent that is a dynamic force in the world if we do not sort out higher education,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

The South African medical doctor and anti-apartheid activist who held three ministerial portfolios before being elected chair of the African Union Commission – went on to demonstrate her commitment by attending summit sessions and asking questions from the floor.

African development

In January 2015 the African Union approved the ambitious Agenda 2063. At a summit in June the AU will adopt the first 10-year plan for Agenda 2063, which will identify flagship integration and modernisation programmes, and will thereafter work with countries to ensure that it becomes part of domestic plans and is implemented.

The flagship initiatives include building regional power pools and investing in renewable and clean energy, connecting Africa through aviation, rail and road to ensure easy and fast movement of people and goods, and free movement of people through an African passport.

For instance, said Dlamini-Zuma, a group of countries is working to create a single aviation market by 2017, infrastructure development is being implemented through regional corridors, and the AU has an agreement with China for industrialisation and transport that includes connecting Africa’s capitals and commercial centres by high-speed rail over three decades.

Africa is a market of a billion people and is expected to reach two billion by 2050. “It has to move away from exporting raw materials, which also exports jobs and the revenue that comes with value-added goods,” said Dlamini-Zuma. “We have to build our own manufacturing and knowledge sectors.”

None of this will be possible without strengthening higher education to produce more high-level skills, and creating more research and development centres across the continent.

“We need to give hope to Africa’s young people,” said Dlamini-Zuma. “People are our most precious resource, and we have that precious resource in abundance.

“That’s why this African Higher Education Summit is so important, and why developing our human resources is at the core of Agenda 2063. Africa must invest in health, in education, in skills, science and technology research, innovation and engineering in order to meet its own development targets.”

Revitalising higher education

The obstacles facing the university sector are “well known and daunting”.

Africa has the lowest higher education enrolment rate in the world, at around 7% against a current global participation rate of around 30% – despite student numbers tripling from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006 and still growing.

Dlamini-Zuma highlighted strategies she believes will help revitalise higher education.

“Firstly, we must continue the conversation about the purpose and role of higher education and how this translates into practice,” she said.

“In the context of skills shortages on the one hand, and graduate unemployment on the other hand, the question is about our ability to adapt curricula, research and teaching to a changing continent and world; and effective partnerships between the sector, development goals and industry remain very relevant.”

Secondly, higher education produces too few PhDs, medical doctors, engineers, scientists, project managers, town planners, mathematicians and others. “And yet we have a youthful population with an ageing academic and research community.”

There are strong initiatives to tackle this problem, Dlamini-Zuma continued – including the launch at the summit of the African Research Universities Alliance.

“We must support these and other initiatives to expand postgraduate teaching and research. And the African Union, through its various strategies – not least the strategy for science, technology and innovation – will continue to advocate for the resourcing of higher education and research, so that our universities indeed become engines of transformation and long-term sustainable development.”

One of the main reasons for forming the Pan African University, with its focus on creating regional centres of excellence, was to contribute to a continental skills and knowledge base that can be utilised anywhere on the continent, said Dlamini-Zuma.

Today there is a centre of excellence in four of Africa’s five regions – focusing on environmental sciences and climate change in Algeria, on basic sciences and technology in Kenya, social sciences in Cameroon and natural sciences in Nigeria – and a space science campus will be launched in South Africa soon.

“There are discussions on the need for a continental centre of excellence for marine biology and the blue ocean economy,” she continued. “The Pan African University centres attract students from across the continent and ensure a pan-African perspective within their disciplines.”

The third issue is increasing access to further and higher education. The rate of expansion of physical universities is phenomenal, but will not be enough to meet the demand for skills and access to higher education for growing populations and economies.

The role of technology in expanding access needs to be explored, with a view to facilitating access to further and higher education for far greater numbers of young people.

The fourth issue, that Dlamini-Zuma said came across very strongly during Agenda 2063 consultations with young people, is harmonisation of higher education across the continent as a key African integration project.

“Harmonisation of curricula, quality standards and assurance, and of qualifications is key to strengthening cooperation among African universities and to promoting the mobility of students, faculty, researchers and skills across the continent.”

Higher education harmonisation, linked to the push towards the free movement of people and an African passport, must help to tackle the brain drain, creating opportunities for talented young people to apply their skills wherever they are needed.

“We also have to look at the diaspora and see how we can attract some of its professionals and researchers,” said Dlamini-Zuma.

2015 is the year of women’s empowerment and development for Agenda 2063. Despite improvements, women remain underrepresented in the sciences and among the leadership of universities. One key investment will be to increase the number of women students and researchers in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“There are a number of examples across the continent where deliberate policies and approaches are seeing results in increasing the number of girls and women in STEM.” Discussions during the 'year of women' will consider how to multiply practices that work.

While enrolment in primary and secondary education in Africa has improved, “the problem is quality”. A stronger teacher corps is needed and this is a field of focus of the harmonisation of African higher education project.

“Africa needs a skills revolution – a drastic increase in vocational, professional and academic training,” said the AU chair. This requires more dynamic linkages between business and industry, industrial policy and universities.

Last but not least, said Dlamini-Zuma, is the question of financing higher education and African development more broadly. The Agenda 2063 approach is for Africa to pay greater attention to domestic resource mobilisation and it proposes a range of strategies including greater African philanthropy and private sector investment in higher education.

The AU will be talking to finance ministers at the end of this month, and Dlamini-Zuma invited the higher education sector to join the conversation to “ensure that the target of at least 1% of continental gross domestic product being invested in research – especially in science – is met and that our countries increase investments in universities”.

* The African Higher Education Summit was live streamed courtesy of The World Bank. To watch plenary sessions in the English stream until mid-May 2015, click here.

* The African Higher Education Summit was hosted by the government of Senegal and organised by TrustAfrica. Other partners included 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 the World Bank.