Higher education ‘vital’ to meet UN development goals

Higher education institutions have a key role to play in helping Africa to meet new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, leading academics told a European conference recently.

Representatives from the African Network for Internationalisation of Education, or ANIE, also called on the international community to develop “responsible partnerships” with African higher education institutions.

They were speaking at the 27th Annual European Association of International Education, or EAIE, Conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, from 15-18 September.

The ANIE session titled “All Eyes on Africa” came as the UN is preparing to formally adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, later this month. The goals are associated with 169 targets.

Speakers suggested that this number may be not realistic; the Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 had only eight goals with 18 targets, not all of which were achieved.

This was in part, they argued, due to challenges highlighted by a report from a Commission for Africa set up under former British prime minister Tony Blair, published 10 years ago, which outlined several concerns regarding Africa’s higher education.

Negatives and positives

Weak higher education systems and scientific research communities and poor collaboration between institutions was compounded by continued loss of skills through ‘brain drain’ of the best staff and students – and these were still problems today, said the speakers.

James Jowi, founding executive director and secretary of ANIE, called on policy-makers to help fund the creation of favourable working conditions to persuade the best academics to stay in African institutions. Better resources and technology, pay and academic freedom were needed, he argued.

However, positive work was also being done.

“There are very interesting developments going on that could be key to meeting the SDGs,” Jowi added. “Different institutions around Africa are trying to come together to harmonise their systems and to find ways of collaborating.

“Higher education is playing a major and important role in helping build partnerships between different countries.”

He also called for “responsible internationalisation”, warning that if Africa was to meet its goals, its institutions needed to start setting the agenda.

“Each time that they [African institutions] get into a partnership with an international organisation, funding has to come from the other side,” he said.

“And of course whoever has the money determines what will be done. The reality is that at the moment through internationalisation we mainly pursue the agendas of others.”

African universities need to set their own agendas, he said, and base partnerships on that criteria as well as mutual trust and respect.

Driven by demographics

Professor Chika Trevor Sehoole, chair of the ANIE board, said success would also be driven by demographics.

“Part of the reason why we are saying all eyes will be on Africa is the number of young people,” he said. Some 40% of the continent’s populace is between 15 and 24 years old, which makes it the most youthful in the world – and that the youthful population is growing.

“When we look at that alongside growing urbanisation and the growing number of higher education institutions, there are real opportunities for collaboration that will help drive us forward.”

Situation in Libya ‘dark’

Meanwhile in a separate session, indicating some of the challenges faced in Africa, the situation in Libya was described as “very dark” by Ghada Aldasooqi, senior advisor of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education, or NOKUT, which runs a project in collaboration with Libyan educational authorities.

Outlining findings from 2014 ‘mapping visits’ conducted by the National Centre for Quality Assurance and Accreditation for Education and Training Institutes – or QAA Libya – she said the country’s higher education sector was struggling to recover not from the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled from 1969 until 2011, but from current and extreme instability.

“Universities are open and operating but little more,” Aldasooqi added. “Students attend lectures and work their way through courses to exams but nothing is done about the development of the university.

“There is not a culture of quality assurance. They don’t see that as anything of a priority. Although some may have documents they tend to be left on the shelf,” she said.

In many cases lecturers are not being paid, and are worried by threatened or actual violence on campuses. There is a lack of accountability, with some academics and other staff promoted without explanation, regardless of their qualifications.

However Aldasooqi did find some positives among the “bleak situation”: children of immigrants from Eritrea and Somalia had been allowed equal access to courses, and 60% of students were women.