Use scarce resource to educate, not fight – Kofi Annan

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has challenged African countries to stop armed and political conflicts and embark on strategies to improve higher education in order to pave the way for economic development and social progress.

Annan was addressing the African Higher Education Summit, themed “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, organised by continental and international partners and hosted by the Senegalese government in the capital Dakar.

According to Annan, higher education is one of the most effective forms of peacebuilding and a source of hope for all individuals in every society.

“Unlike other continents, Africa is at war with itself and has continued to engage in endless conflicts, instead of using its limited resources to improve the higher education of its young people,” said Annan.

The enormously respected Annan, chancellor of the University of Ghana and a tireless activist for Africa’s development, advised African leaders not to be blinded by the discovery of oil but to pay attention to the education of their young people.

He stressed that while Africa had posted impressive economic growth in the last 15 years, the boom was not expected to continue for a long time. “When that comes to an end, we will have to rely more on our human resources than on our natural resources,” said Annan.

He reminded Africa’s political leaders that in order to overcome enormous challenges, the continent will have to improve the quality and diversity of skills currently being taught in universities, as well as deepen the research capacity of Africa’s higher education system.

Students must cough up

Annan castigated the many students and parents who resist paying university tuition fees – even though many students pay exorbitant fees for secondary education. Quality higher education required proper funding, and he urged students and parents to pay up.

“The time has come to revitalise higher education in Africa and this will necessitate strategic alliances with and investment from governments, local and international partners and donors as well as student fees,” said Annan.

Commenting on the quality of the majority of African students, Annan said many young people are not prepared for leadership. There is an urgent need to erode religious and ethnic divides, not just in the universities but in all African societies.

Pinpointing the main cause of frustration among educated youth, Annan noted that Africa was full of unemployed university graduates, even as economies have grown by more than 5% for over a decade.

He faulted parents, universities and governments for having not given young people the skills that African economies need in the 21st Century.

Improvements needed

The crux of the matter is that most courses in African universities were traditionally designed to train academics, civil servants and employees in the formal economy – but countries have been shedding civil service jobs and currently economies are largely informal.

There is thus an urgent need for African universities and skills training institutions to reflect on these changes and teach the technical and entrepreneurial skills graduates need to succeed.

Annan urged Africans to look at the example of Switzerland, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world despite having a smaller proportion of university graduates than other developed countries.

That is largely because the Swiss post-school system focuses not only on academic education but also on providing quality vocational training in areas such as hotel management, engineering, IT, health and agriculture, “producing graduates who are immediately employable”.

Annan said that other European countries are looking how the Swiss model of tertiary education can help to solve their graduate unemployment problems, and urged vice-chancellors at the summit to explore the Swiss model too.

There were frosty remarks about many private universities, which he said have consistently eroded standards of higher education. It was a problem that public universities had started losing ground to private institutions.

He identified lack of funding as one of the key barriers to advancing research and scholarship in African universities and other developing countries.

“Many of the continent’s brightest young prospects feel they must leave Africa to further their studies, to publish or be mentored, and to develop personal expertise,” said Annan.

He appealed to international donors to help rejuvenate African higher education, and praised the Carnegie Corporation of New York for assisting many African universities in improving libraries and establishing PhD programmes.

Annan delivered remarks on behalf of Carnegie Corporation President Dr Vartan Gregorian, who was unable to attend the summit but said his foundation would continue helping selected African universities in curriculum reform and digital platforms, among other areas.

International opportunities

Annan called for closer cooperation between universities and institutions abroad as such ties can increase capacity in African universities and widen access to higher education.

He urged African universities to embrace such opportunities and to collaborate on joint teaching and research programmes, facilitate student and staff exchanges, and jointly train and develop doctoral students.

“We are aware that Africa has exported some of its brightest minds, as both professors and students, and tomorrow they can benefit Africa as much as they benefit their host countries today,” said Annan.

* The African Higher Education Summit was livestreamed 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 Economic Development and 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.


Tall order. I would love to see Africa have its enlightenment as it is much needed, but this is not going to happen until the grasp of religion there diminishes. People need to be able to openly criticise and question, adopting a sceptical approach.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page