Africa must commit 1% of GDP to research – President

Senegalese President Macky Sall has called on African countries to allocate more than 1% of gross domestic product to research, if the continent is to make headway with its development agenda – and he pledged to become a continental political champion for the cause, alongside the African Union Commission.

Addressing more than 500 delegates including ministers of education, vice-chancellors, senior government officials and local and international partners in higher education, Sall said Africa was at a crossroads, as it had the world’s lowest enrolment rate in higher education.

“On average Africa’s participation in tertiary education stands at only 7%, compared to the global access rate of about 30%,” said Sall. The Senegalese president was opening the higher education summit on “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, held last week in Dakar.

Affirming his support for the initiative, Sall said he would lobby fellow African presidents not just to allocate 1% of gross domestic product to research and development, but to also pump more resources into higher education studies in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

He said he supported the African Union idea of moving towards a single African passport. “If agreed upon, the move would enhance rapid student and academic mobility on the continent,” said Sall.

The crux of the matter is that students have become increasingly mobile as the demand for higher education continues to rise. “Now is the time to build Africa’s higher education space and to disseminate knowledge beyond language barriers,” the president added.

He also urged African universities to embrace rankings, accreditation and harmonisation of degrees and other credentials.

Need for collaboration

African universities, Sall stressed, could not operate in isolation but needed to cooperate and respond to global trends in higher education. However, he was aware that this would not be easy because of established traditions.

Addressing the forum, Aicha Bah Diallo, chair of TrustAfrica – lead organiser of the summit – said that if Africa was to develop, it had to do so collectively.

Lack of progress in supporting higher education was the result of competition for resources between different sectors in African countries. In this regard, she supported higher education being recognised as a goal of its own in the post-2015 global Sustainable Development Goals.

However Diallo, who is also a senior adviser to the director-general of UNESCO on the education of girls, told delegates that the financial crisis facing higher education could be partly addressed by local philanthropists.

“We need a collective voice and to work together with the private sector, governments, universities and local philanthropists to find solutions to problems affecting higher education.”

Diallo said the time had come for Africans to start pushing for a common position on matters related to higher education. She highlighted graduate unemployment and education disparities as among serious issues that were aggravated by lack of joint decision processes within Africa.

Looming youth bulge problem

But even if African governments were to increase support for higher education, other experts attending the summit were worried about youth bulge.

Professor Crispus Kiamba of the University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary in Kenya’s ministry of education, science and technology, told University World News that Africa’s population was rising fast.

Currently, youth aged 15-24 years account for 20% of Africa’s one billion people and Africa continues to be the world’s youngest continent.

“Unless things change for the better by 2050, some African governments will find it hard to finance most of their education programmes,” Kiamba said.

* 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 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.