Steady progress for Africa’s 19 centres of excellence

Most of the 19 African centres of excellence being strengthened through a US$150 million World Bank initiative are up and running. Progress includes 3,510 students enrolled for specialised short courses, masters or PhDs – nearly 1,500 of them from other countries in the region. The project is now expanding from seven West African countries, to East and Southern Africa.

A further 2,281 students have undergone an internship or placement of at least one month, and the existing centres of excellence have generated external revenue totalling US$5.8 million, according to an implementation status and results report published by the World Bank on 25 June.

The Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence or ACE, Project, was approved in April 2014 and is set to close at the end of 2018, with the World Bank committing US$150 million in loans and a total project cost of US$290 million including financing from other sources.

In its first iteration, the initiative focused on seven countries in West Africa – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo. Initially 15 centres were selected from 52 applications, with Nigeria winning 10 of them, and four more centres have followed.

Preparations are now underway to expand ACE across Africa.

“In mid-January we had a large workshop with more than 12 governments represented, development financers, regional organisations and a lot of vice-chancellors and senior faculty,” Andreas Blom, the World Bank’s lead economist for African education and the project leader, told University World News in an interview recently.

“The concept has been approved and we have eight East and Southern African governments signed up to it.” A regional steering committee with country representatives was held in late April and national workshops started rolling out in May.

The project

The ACE development objective is to support recipients “to promote regional specialisation among participating universities in areas that address regional challenges by strengthening the capacities of these universities to deliver quality training and applied research”.

There are two project components. The first is strengthening 19 centres of excellence in higher education institutions “to produce highly skilled graduates and applied research to help address specific regional development challenges”, at a cost of US$140.8 million.

The second component, worth US$9.2 million, is to enhance regional capacity, evaluation and collaboration and it has three sub-components.

First, enhancing capacity and evaluation is being financed via an International Development Association grant to the Association of African Universities. Second, there is implementation financing for the National Universities Commission in Nigeria, with its 10 centres. Third, there is financing for service provision to students, academics and civil servants in Gambia.

According to the update report, there has been “satisfactory” progress towards achieving the project objective and “moderately satisfactory” progress towards overall implementation, but the Bank assessed the overall risk of the project as continuing to be “substantial”.

The student numbers involved so far, the Bank pointed out, were provided by the ACEs themselves. The figures would be verified in late 2015 to inform a second round of funding that will be based on detailed results and would be “likely to lead to downward adjustments”.

“That being said, progress on the indicators and other activities provide some evidence that the regional competitive selection mechanism did select ACE teams in the universities that are strong and highly committed.”

Project effectiveness and disbursements have been “progressing steadily with the Association of African Universities, the Gambia and Burkina Faso, Benin, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria and Togo all declared effective, having met all the effectiveness conditions”.

The remaining country was Ghana, where effectiveness was expected by the end of June. Additional financing for Côte d’Ivoire was requested by the country’s president, and is being processed by the World Bank. Evaluation of seven proposals is expected this month, followed by a selection process.

Achievements were the result of close coordination, with regular meetings between country-based team members, government officials, experts and World Bank staff, as well as supervision and implementation support meetings, capacity building and peer learning among the centres.

The project steering committee has met six times: “There is strong and full ownership of the committee and the project. This high level of ownership is critical in fostering regional collaboration through the project,” according to the report.

Some challenges

The three main challenges facing the ACEs were attracting regional students – “a problem for 10 to 12 ACEs, but with progress” – shortages of academics to take on new programmes and doctorates, and a “steep learning curve for interaction with the private sector, meeting international quality benchmarks, and generation of external revenue”.

Andreas Blom added that other difficulties ranged from management to politics, funding and gender. “There is a lot of paperwork to make sure that the legal agreements have been signed and that universities have done the right planning, [have] the right teams and the right regional and industry partnerships,” said Blom.

There were some difficulties in getting projects approved by parliaments. But this was essential as the ACE funding is in World Bank credits and soft loans. “Governments have to pay back and so the countries needed to approve. It just takes time.”

There have also been challenges around ensuring access by girls to ACE training. “We have around 25% to 33% girls. This is better than average for engineering programmes, and petroleum engineering in Port Harcourt is around 40%. But how do we increase this?”

Faculty time is a major issue, Blom stressed, because the ACE initiative is generating a lot of work – “not just paperwork but also in scaling up PhDs and masters, which is the core of the ACE programme, and international accreditation. All this takes faculty time.”

It was important not to fall into the trap of expanding enrolments but not academics, which would result in declining quality. So recruiting new faculty was key, “but they have to be found”.

Discussions on how to boost the number of academics in the centres generated suggestions around partnering with universities abroad, bringing in lecturers from industry, and building new lecturer pipelines. “But faculty time is clearly a constraint that we have to address.”

Private sector collaboration

There were also problems around industry collaboration. However, Blom told University World News, multinational companies had expressed considerable interest in the African centres of excellence – for instance Microsoft, Total and some pharmaceutical firms.

“They have the interest in and the habits of collaborating with universities. Total and some of the big oil companies have very clear manpower needs and units that are in charge of producing engineers. It is a business case for them, and a PR case, so they are coming.”

“But the universities sometimes need to adapt to that change in culture. Some are very good, such as the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria and 2IE in Burkina Faso. Others are a little more slow. So we need to do more sharing of experience. We have been discussing the need for universities to change a little, and getting out to the large African companies.”


The ACE centres are building on existing initiatives – the very best were selected. “They will continue what they were doing but we will help to bring them one, two or even three levels higher,” said Blom.

Some of the centres have been very quick out of the starting blocks, others have been more cautious. “Some were bold and decided to go ahead with money from other sources, while waiting for the World Bank money. That’s why there are already some results coming out.

“There is always that discussion when you support something ongoing, of incremental impact. The baselines and monitoring are going to be important for the centres to justify the investment.”

Blom said that developing centres of excellence on existing structures was important for sustainability, because they would remain after the World Bank money was gone.

“I also think it takes 10, 15 years to build a true centre of excellence, unless you are really really good. You want to build on something that has already proven it has a team of senior faculty, has ownership within the university and has an ability to deliver. Otherwise starting something and getting it up to international level is difficult to do in five years.

There were new institutions being created around the world that were trying to rupture higher education regimes and cultures – one of them was the African University of Science and Technology, a Nelson Mandela Institution created in Nigeria’s capital Abuja in 2007 as a centre of excellence, and there were other cases in Europe.

While such ‘new regime’ institutions had merit and were an interesting way to move forward, said Blom, the World Bank did not see them emerging in force in Africa under current circumstances and so decided to rather focus on teams and universities already doing well.

“So in my view it is much better doing brown field investment than green field, when you want to reach for excellence.”