Lobbying for higher education on parallel agendas

At the recently concluded African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, the chair of the African Union Commission Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Senegalese President Macky Sall pledged to undertake a role of critical importance – to lobby their constituencies in support of revitalising higher education at an upcoming heads of state meeting in June 2015.

This commitment came after a concerted drive – by a number of institutions including the Association of Commonwealth Universities [1], the International Network for Higher Education in Africa [2, 3] and the International Association of Universities [4] – to position higher education strategically at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.

As the top African Union diplomat and the president are headed to the June meeting to engage their colleagues and situate the dialogue within the 2063 African Union Agenda [5], this editorial attempts to offer some critical ‘talking points’ for the conversation.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that the dialogue may also help shape the post-2015 development agenda which, many worry, may not place higher education centrally.

The five main points below are the critical concepts:

1- Rate of return: Africa now the global leader

The abandoned rate-of-return study on higher education has been instrumental in adversely shaping the African higher education sector for decades.

It was at this 2015 Summit that the audience discovered from a World Bank representative that the rate of return on higher education in Africa is not only high, but at 21% [6], is now the highest in the world.

For a few higher education experts at the summit – who have been at the forefront of the conversation on the rate-of-return debacle [7, 8 and 9], including this author – that official pronouncement was a momentous occasion.

Indeed, investing in African higher education is not only important now but more so as it affords the continent a competitive edge to its already high and sustained economic growth.

Thus, all concerned need to celebrate, articulate and widely popularise this discovery on the role of African higher education. It must be effectively communicated for a paradigm shift targeting political leaders, policy-makers, development partners, researchers and other stakeholders.

2- Raising higher education budgets: No blanket appeal

Probably no issue would be as prominent as funding in the conversation about revitalising African higher education. Higher education in Africa is still predominantly public – only 25% of students are currently enrolled in private institutions – and is heavily dependent on government funding, with persistent and massive shortfalls.

This is the case even though quite a number of African countries already invest a sizeable portion of their budgets in the higher education sector and thus have limited flexibility to increase it significantly.

According to Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia already devote about 18% of their national budget to education. Ethiopia is already investing more than a fifth of its national budget in education – and about a quarter of it in higher education. Figures for Botswana and South Africa are roughly equivalent [10].

Therefore, appealing to governments for a wholesale massive increase of funding may not have considerable traction. But these countries, and all others, need to be persuaded to foster their fund-raising and revenue diversification capabilities institutionally, nationally and internationally with comprehensive, strategic and holistic policies and approaches.

3- Managing egalitarianism: Enhancing differentiation

Africa has seen phenomenal growth and expansion of higher education in the last decade.

As part of a study on 11 leading African universities due to be published this year in Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, impact and trajectory (working title), an estimated 14 million students currently study in African higher learning institutions [11]. The magnitude of expansion is remarkable in both ‘mother’ and ‘sibling’ institutions.

Governments need to be commended for their direct and indirect interventions including favourable policies and funding, among others.

This remarkable massification, however, did not come without considerable challenges, including the reluctance to identify and support select institutions in the strategic interest of fostering national competitiveness.

In some countries, this practice is so pervasive that it tends to disregard even the oldest and best established post-independence institutions which already enjoy national prominence.

Increasingly, but troublingly so, many new public institutions are being established in Africa in which crass politics are interlaced with narrow ethnic, religious and other sectarian lines, among other problems. At times, they function without the most basic of facilities and resources.

Such practices and phenomena put an immense hurdle in the path of ‘Africa’s knowledge project’. Thus, the task of lobbying must be pursued with considerable sensitivity and firm persuasion.

In the end, an unadulterated egalitarian predisposition that dangerously ignores a country’s existing and potential competitive knowledge advantage, it should be stressed, comes with serious consequences.

Therefore, nations should map out their institutional landscape identifying (few) research-intensive, (most) teaching-intensive and (many) comprehensive institutions, as appropriate.

Furthermore, no immediate silver bullet is in sight to tackle the challenges of un(der)employment, although a host of initiatives are being considered.

It is conceivable that a differentiated system will help to alleviate the unemployment crisis in the region. This is because differentiating the post-secondary education system – which allows a variety of programmes, curricula and skills – expands the scope of job opportunities.

4- Leadership and autonomy: Overlooked imperatives

In this era of enrolment expansion, in numerous African countries heads of states and government ministries still appoint the leaders of public higher education institutions. In quite a large number of cases, those appointments have not taken merit or leadership quality as a central criterion for appointment and often trigger issues of allegiance and loyalty.

This editorial has no intention of articulating the pros and cons of the increasingly critical values of institutional leadership at this unprecedented period of higher education transformation and change.

Rather, its goal is to firmly stress that the qualification to lead higher education institutions in this era entails not only winning the confidence of academics, staff and students – not an easy task – but also acquiring the trust and support of numerous other internal and external stakeholders who are increasingly non-governmental actors.

Political leaders must be urged to grant robust autonomy to higher education institutions, including the selection of their own institutional leaders in countries where this is not the norm so far; if that is not feasible, however, nations must strive to appoint institutional leaders who meet high standards of excellence.

The involvement of other countries and institutions in this exercise, especially for those leading institutions nationally, is instrumental not only in advancing the direct interest of nations but also in the African Union’s mission of fostering an ‘Integrated Africa’ whose objectives include facilitating academic mobility and close academic cooperation among nations.

5- Advancing research: Enhancing knowledge production and utilisation

The importance of research for knowledge production is well established. However, where production of knowledge is very low, as in Africa, the capacity to utilise it is minimal as well.

This is simply because developing the capacity for research for creating knowledge also enables its utilisation. Therefore, the rationale for advancing research in higher learning institutions must not be construed only in terms of fostering knowledge production, but also in enhancing capacity to utilise it.

Despite some differences between English- and French-speaking countries, the major citadel of knowledge production in Africa lies in universities. Such undertakings mostly take place through (post)graduate education, particularly PhD training – but Africa’s ability to advance this agenda faces serious hurdles [12, 13].

Furthermore, simply acquiring and generating knowledge does not amount to its dissemination and diffusion – an important issue for another conversation.

The complex reality of relevance (of research and curriculum) versus development is not very well understood. But it is important to observe that the fast-changing knowledge era has made forecasting a country’s needs increasingly difficult.

To cite an example: countries that have recently discovered oil and gas are known to be scrambling to build their national skills capacity in those areas.

Science and technology has recently received major emphasis – and rightly so – for Africa’s development. We have recently seen many countries shifting quickly towards science and technology with palpable anxiety for those in other disciplines.

Ethiopia is a special example that has undertaken an aggressive and swift turnaround with now over 70% of its enrolments in science, technology and engineering fields [14].

It is critical to also stress the vital importance of the social sciences, arts and humanities in harnessing the advancement of science and technology in the service of society.

Moreover, multidisciplinary approaches are paramount prerequisites in tackling Africa’s numerous and complex development challenges, which are unencumbered by the boundaries of academic disciplines.


African higher education is currently driving energetically forward, under the high impetus of growth and expansion with 14 million students in the system. As expansion continues unabated, a more strategic and determined consolidation and differentiation of the system is imperative.

The rate of return on higher education in Africa now stands as the highest in the world – at 21%. If earlier seminal documents, by the World Bank and UNESCO [15, 16] among others, liberated African higher education from the shackles of flawed policy predicaments, this one may have the potential to crown it.

It is thus imperative that the coronation of higher education – as providing the highest dividend – must be applauded and widely disseminated.

This breakthrough finding could not have come at a more opportune time when a number of concerned higher education entities are striving to position higher education more centrally in their post-2015 development agendas, which many fear may marginalise the sector.

In light of this discovery, there is no reason to read disparities into the post-2015 development agenda and the African Union’s ‘Agenda 2063’ as regards the critical role and contributions of higher education to national development.

Finally, the unequivocal enunciation of the sector as critical to development – further buttressed by the new rate of return figures – must be strategically deployed at the upcoming meeting of the heads of states, and other relevant fora.

It is also crucial to recall that expanding and revitalising higher education in Africa in the past required a sustained political will.

We are guardedly optimistic that the dual mission of Dlamini-Zuma and Sall in lobbying their political constituencies to revitalise higher education – not just in ‘Agenda 2063’ but also post-2015 – has become somewhat easier, and a lot smoother.

* Damtew Teferra wrote the discussion paper on “Investment in Higher Education in Africa” and led the higher education expert team which developed the background papers in the lead up to the Summit. He is a professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education, and editor of the Chronicle of African Higher Education and African Higher Education News. He may be reached at and

* This article, “Dual Mission of Dlamini-Zuma and Sall: Lobbying for higher education on parallel agendas”, was first published as part of the editorial series of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, or INHEA. It is republished with permission.

  • • 1- Association of Commonwealth Universities. The world beyond 2015: Is higher education ready?
  • • 2- Teferra, Damtew (19 May 2014) “Treacherous ambivalence”. Inside Higher Education – World View.
  • • 3- Teferra, Damtew (4 July 2014) “Critical to include HE in post-2015 development agenda”. University World News, Issue No: 327.
  • • 4- International Association of Universities (2014) “The role of higher education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda”. IAU Horizons, 20(3).
  • • 5-
  • • 6- This was communicated at the Summit by a World Bank representative.
  • • 7- Samoff, Joel and Carroll, Bidemi (2002) The Promise of Partnership and the Continuities of Dependence: External support to higher education in Africa. Report presented at the 45th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington DC.
  • • 8- Bloom, E, Canning, David, Chan, Kevin and Luca, D Lee (2014) “Higher Education and Economic Growth in Africa". International Journal of African Higher Education, 1(1): 23-57.
  • • 9- Teferra, Damtew (2009) “Higher Education in Africa: The dynamics of international partnerships and interventions”. In Roberta M Bassett and Alma M Maldonado (Eds), International Organisations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking globally, acting locally? New York: Taylor and Francis. 155-173.
  • • 10- Teferra, Damtew (Ed) (2013) Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. (Multiple chapters consulted.)
  • • 11- Teferra, Damtew (in press) (Ed) Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, impact and trajectory [working title]. Durban and Boston: International Network for Higher Education in Africa.
  • • 12- Hayward, F (2010) “Graduate Education in Sub-Saharan Africa”. In Damtew Teferra and Greijn Heinz (Eds) Higher Education and Globalisation: Challenges, threats and opportunities for Africa. Maastricht-Boston: Mundo, Maastricht University and INHEA, Boston College. 31-57.
  • • 13- Teferra, Damtew (2015) “Manufacturing – and Exporting – Excellence and ‘Mediocrity’: Doctoral education in South Africa”. South African Journal of Higher Education 29(5).
  • • 14- Ayalew, Elizabeth (in press) “Once a Flagship, Always a flagship? The role of AAU in Ethiopian higher education development”. In Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, impact and trajectory (Ed). Durban and Boston: International Network for Higher Education in Africa.
  • • 15- World Bank and UNESCO (2000) Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and promise. Washington DC-Paris: World Bank-UNESCO.
  • • 16- World Bank (2002) Constructing Knowledge Societies: New challenges for tertiary education. Washington DC: World Bank.