A pyramid without a higher education roof?

One delegate at the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar warned that, unless higher education was given equal priority to that of the primary and secondary sectors, African education would be like a “pyramid without a roof”. What a wonderful analogy.

Not only because it sums up the position perfectly, or because for many the pyramids are a distinctive symbol of Africa, but also because those who built the pyramids realised that they take time to construct.

Done successfully, they endure for generations. Produced too quickly, they collapse into a useless pile of rubble.

Expanding higher education

African higher education needs to expand. Its enrolment rates are the lowest in the world and the demand for high quality skills is rising rapidly. The summit drew together an impressive range of figures – a former UN secretary general, the chair of the African Union Commission and an array of presidents and ministers – to tell us this.

For Senegal’s higher education minister, Mary Teuw Niane, such expansion was a ‘non-negotiable’ element in Africa’s renewal.

The World Bank representative told us (without a hint of irony) that higher education offered the best returns of an educational investment – and particularly so in Africa. It was music to the ears of those of us who work in the system.

More worryingly, this consensus also seemed to extend to the pace of change. In short, the quicker the better.

The actual speed varies throughout Africa – but some of the figures are startling, with some national systems doubling enrolments in just a few years. Private sector and open learning will contribute to such growth, as well as the hard pressed public sector.

But few really believe that this can be achieved without some reduction in quality, often in universities that have only just recovered from the cataclysmic impact of decline in the 1980s and 1990s that occurred when funding to the sector was choked off under the banner of structural adjustment.

Universities need to stand up against this consensus, at least until growth is properly resourced and can be properly planned.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dr Max Price, struck a welcome note of dissent, arguing that rapid growth was in conflict with the needs of an internationally recognised research university, and that for Cape Town the latter would prevail.

But the argument does not just apply to research.

The employability issue

The conference heard much of employers’ need for graduates, and ways to make higher education more relevant.

Let’s be clear, though: employers don’t want graduates just for the sake of it, and the levels of graduate unemployment witnessed today suggest they may not even want more of them.

What we heard clearly at the summit was that employers want graduates with the skills – technical or professional – to do, or even create, jobs. And to do them well.

If we want graduates with much prized analytical and critical skills, we need to talk to them during their degrees, ensure that they talk to each other, and critically engage on the work that they produce.

Lots of ways were suggested to promote this: mentoring, project work, working in teams, facilitating work placements. Most of these, however, have the common characteristic of being relatively labour intensive to implement.

Others argued that expansion was necessary for social equity – that we can only ensure that the most deserving candidates will get a place at university by pursuing a form of ‘massification’ to drastically increase the number of places available.

However, no-one – and least of all first generation university students whose families are making real sacrifices to send them there – wants a disappointing educational experience resulting in qualifications that don’t stand up in the market place.

Properly financed – and properly planned – expansion can produce the benefits that ministers are seeking.

One speaker pointed to Singapore as an example of how a strong higher education sector has led to a vibrant economy. She was right – but Singapore’s approach was a million miles from that now being proposed for Africa.

Their expansion was nothing if not planned, and put quality first. It has resulted in the development of two of the highest rated universities in the world. Rapid expansion however was never part of the plan. Indeed, publicly funded places are still being strictly controlled in Singapore to this day.

Academic staff shortages

An issue that was only alluded to briefly during the summit, but needs to be brought fully into view, is the question of academic staff shortages. Students, after all, need to be taught. In order to preserve quality, any expansion in student numbers needs to be met with an expansion in the academic ranks.

African countries that have pursued rapid expansion in their higher education system offer us some stark lessons. Newly created or expanded universities, both public and private, often suffer staggering student-to-staff ratios, a scarcity of adequately qualified staff, and a high reliance on visiting lecturers to teach their students.

Clearly, such conditions will not be conducive to achieving the outcomes being sought.

New educational technologies and a greater use of distance and blended learning may be able to ease this pressure, but the expertise – and more critically the infrastructure – are not yet in place to do so on anything approaching the scale being discussed.

Expansion needs careful planning

Recognising the value of higher education is critical. Let’s hope those governments who were so vocal in their support in Dakar will make the same point when the next generation of development goals is determined later this year.

But we must not allow the development community to move unchallenged from a previous and highly damaging position of having no confidence in higher education to one where expectations run far ahead of what is realistic.

Limiting growth to sustainable levels may be unpopular now, but the emergence of huge cohorts of unfulfilled graduates whose aspirations have been shattered represents an even more potent threat to social unrest in future.

If the expansion is not carefully planned and comes without the necessary resources and attention to quality, then however unfairly, it will be universities that get blamed when their part of the pyramid collapses.

This article by Dr John Kirkland OBE, Deputy Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, was first published by the ACU.