High-level meeting proposes ways to boost universities

Recommendations for strengthening African universities were agreed at a high-level event last weekend, held alongside the United Nations General Assembly meeting to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. The proposals include promoting student mobility, postgraduate research, centres of excellence and partnerships.

Malawian President Arthur Peter Mutharika, a former university professor, hosted the event titled "A Strategy to Strengthen Higher Education in Africa for Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals".

Mutharika was bestowed with the role of a ‘champion’ for higher education in Africa by the 55 vice-chancellors who lead the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM.

The purpose of the event on 26 September was to discuss strategies to ensure “transformative, high-quality and accessible higher education in Africa that contributes to economic growth and inclusive development”, and to strengthen universities as a means to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is according to the event summary report, provided to University World News by Living Silk Kalimanjira, first secretary at the permanent mission of Malawi to the United Nations.

The recommendations

The meeting called on African governments and the private and philanthropic sectors to provide more financing to higher education.

It welcomed the Global Commission on Education Financing, convened by UNESCO and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg following a High Level Summit on Education for Development held in Oslo in July. The commission, led by former United Kingdom prime minister Gordon Brown, aims to report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by September 2016.

“The need to better align funding from different sectors and types of partners to ensure that the whole is greater than the funding parts was highlighted,” said the summary report.

Other recommendations were to:
  • • Improve equitable access to higher education across socio-economic quintiles and across gender.
  • • Enhance the mobility of African students by providing an enabling environment and reducing challenges to cross border movement.
  • • Promote postgraduate research through partnerships – South-South, North-South and triangular initiatives. “These could be through regional collaborations in Africa to allow centres of excellence to emerge and promote aggregation of resources to enhance quality.” This could build on RUFORUM’s centres of leadership approach.
  • • Advance multidisciplinary innovation and do not place an artificial division between the sciences and non-science disciplines.
  • • Better link academia to industry to promote business growth and development, and general development.
  • • Further support ongoing initiatives that escalate postgraduate training.
The meeting also called on:
  • • The African Union Commission to put in place mechanisms to improve the movement of staff and students to institutions across the continent. “Mobility can be enhanced by providing an enabling environment, as well as reducing challenges to inter-country mobility.”
  • • Development partners to work with African governments to ensure long-term funding to the higher education sector, as a key driver of the development process.
  • • All present to support local and international partnerships that tackle critical capacity needs for sustainable agriculture – including partnerships among universities and engagement with communities, the private sector and the African diaspora.
  • • All partners to use ICTs to improve the decentralisation of teaching and learning, enhance access and reduce the costs of education in Africa.
Participants at the event stressed that student exchange between Africa and other continents should be encouraged.

“Building on existing schemes that have for some time focused on taking students from Africa to Europe, the United States and other parts of the world, it was recognised that students from other parts of the world also need to come to study in Africa to improve their understanding of the region and to generate new ideas and innovations,” said the summary report.

Also: “Africa needs to harness the diaspora community to support the strengthening of the higher education sector.” Finance and scholarships should be targeted more broadly to skills needs in Africa.

Further actions

During the event several participants called for further action to boost higher education’s role in Africa’s sustainable development.

The Malawian president noted the need for networks to support capacity development in higher education so that institutions can learn from each other and centres of excellence can be spread more equally across the continent

Malawi’s Minister for Education, Science and Technology, Emmanuel Fabiano, stressed the need for higher education to promote entrepreneurship and produce graduates that can generate as well as take up employment. He especially stressed the need for more focus on science, technology and innovation.

Norwegian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tone Skogen, said the right to education was sacrosanct and was also linked to maintaining peace and order and avoiding a global shift to extremism.

Andrea Johnson, of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, highlighted the need to develop the next generation of academics in Africa and to support regional higher education networks.

Sunita Pitamber from the African Development Bank stressed the skills gap and a mismatch between what is taught and researched against what is needed, as well as the shortage of scientists, health professionals and engineers – especially women.

There was a critical need for well-trained professionals to drive Africa’s development agenda, Pitamber added, and to develop private as well as public universities.

Way forward

According to the event press release, the successes of most wealthy and emerging economies have demonstrated that economic growth – such as the 5% realised by Africa’s countries – had been attained by increasing numbers of scientists and other graduates.

Recent World Bank studies have shown that Sub-Saharan Africa could have a return of 20% on higher education investment.

Higher education investment must focus on strategies that rely on Africa’s own ability to mobilise its higher education institutions through training and producing quality, skilled graduates who are linked to Africa’s realities and are able to support economic growth and development, wealth creation and sustainable poverty reduction.