Key role for universities in African education strategy

There is a strong call for strengthening universities and research in the new Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025. Its objectives include boosting postgraduate and post-doctoral education and growing competitive awards to nurture young academics, more international research cooperation and expanding centres of excellence and institutional links.

The strategy, approved by heads of state attending the 26th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa last Sunday 31 January, also urges governments to honour their commitment to spend 1% of gross domestic product on research and to create “conducive environments” for research and innovation by providing adequate infrastructure and resources.

Tertiary education and research have been given more stress than in previous education statements, reflecting continental realisation of their importance to growth and development.

The Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025, or CESA 16-25, is driven by a desire to achieve quality education and training that provides the continent with “efficient human resources adapted to African core values and therefore able to achieve the vision and ambitions of the African Union”.

The guiding principles are that knowledge societies are driven by skilled human capital; holistic, inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning is a sine qua non for sustainable development; and good governance, leadership and accountability are paramount.

Further, harmonised education and training systems are essential to realising intra-Africa mobility and academic integration through regional cooperation; and quality and relevant education and research is core to innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.

The 10-year strategy is underpinned by communication, governance and implementation frameworks for delivery. Given the enormity of the tasks it sets, stakeholders are afforded the freedom to create support initiatives alongside CESA 16-25.


The African Union and regional bodies have produced visions and strategic frameworks on every facet of an African Renaissance. The latest is Agenda 2063, which charts the strategies needed to achieve a more prosperous, secure, peaceful and democratic Africa.

CESA 16-25 points out that there has been unprecedented growth of African economies while other regions have experienced sluggish expansion. Africa has abundant natural resources and is the world’s youngest continent – but its potential can only be realised through more and better education and training.

“This call has been re-echoed by national governments, regional communities and continental groupings. During the last two decades, they have heavily invested in the schooling and training of African children and youth and articulated strategic policy frameworks and plans to achieve accessible, dynamic and relevant educational development.”

The African Union launched two decades of education, the last one ending in 2015. Agenda 2063 provides a roadmap for Africa’s development. The post-2015 United Nations global development programme was an essential step towards implementing Agenda 2063.

Under the African Union, education ministers held consultations in Rwanda in February 2015 to articulate Africa’s post-2015 education agenda. The outcomes were endorsed by the World Education Forum held in Incheon, South Korea, in May 2015. CESA 16-25 provides African benchmarks that will help the continent tackle global education goals.

Tertiary education

Africa’s education pyramid has a broad base of 79% participation at the primary level, a “very narrow middle” of 50% participation at secondary level and a “microscopic” top of 7% at tertiary level. Also, education systems are of low quality, they are failing to articulate with economic and social sectors, and there are inequalities and exclusion at all levels.

A major focus of the strategy is strengthening the capacities of ministries to formulate policies and implement reforms. Another key focus is articulating education policies with economic and social sectors “in order to make national human resource development a top priority and a recipient of substantial and sustained investment in the years to come”.

On tertiary education, the strategy points out: “Virtually all development players now concur that for any meaningful and sustainable economic growth to be realised and sustained, tertiary education must be centrally placed in the development agenda of nations.”

“Countries around the world are striving to build the sector either under pressure, as is the case in Africa, or as part of their priority strategic development plan, as in developed and emerging countries.”

The Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 stressed the importance of higher education as it has the largest research centres in Africa, responsible for the bulk of scientific production.

Higher education, CESA 16-25 adds, provides a conducive environment for the development and exploitation of science, technology and innovation to support sustainable growth and development. It improves competitiveness in research, innovation and entrepreneurship and requires “more and more quality university studies from African states”.

But there are problems with access.

Despite impressive growth in tertiary education in the past two decades, enrolment across Africa still averages at only about 7% of the age cohort. Private providers have played an important role in growth, and currently enrol 25% of students on the continent.

Also, while many countries are pushing the fields of science and technology, the “enrolment landscape continues to be dominated by humanities and social sciences”, the strategy says.

“Quality and relevance of university education have emerged as serious concerns of the sector for some time now. Postgraduate education remains underdeveloped and its contribution to research and innovation remains minuscule.”

Outside of South Africa and Egypt, no African universities feature in the world top rankings. Further, the sector “grapples with considerable inequities in gender, social class, geographic location, minority groups and disability among others”.

CESA 16-25 highlights reorienting enrolments, postgraduate education, and research and innovation linked to development as challenges.

“The capacity to absorb the massive number of graduates of secondary education systems necessitates building additional modern infrastructure and providing innovative training methodologies using ICTs and online courses.

“Tertiary education in Africa is also faced with an aging population of professors and trainers,” it says, and there is an urgent need to renew the teaching force. The working and living conditions of faculty and students must be improved to attract more young people.

“The mounting cost of tertiary education is also a key challenge and continental and sub-regional integration schemes – for example, harmonisation – combined with private sector involvement hold a key to expanding access and promoting relevance and advancing quality.”

Strategic objectives

CESA 16-25 outlines 12 strategic objectives supported by specific areas of work:
  • • 1. Revitalise the teaching profession to ensure quality and relevance at all levels of education.
  • • 2. Build, rehabilitate and support education infrastructure and develop policies that ensure a permanent stress-free and conducive learning environment for all, so as to expand access to quality education at all levels including informal and non-formal settings.
  • • 3. Harness the capacity of ICT to improve access, quality and management of education and training systems.
  • • 4. Ensure acquisition of requisite knowledge and skills as well as improved completion rates in all groups through harmonisation processes across all levels for national and regional integration.
  • • 5. Accelerate processes leading to gender parity and equity.
  • • 6. Launch comprehensive and effective literacy programmes across the continent.
  • • 7. Strengthen the science and maths curricula in youth training and disseminate scientific knowledge and culture in society.
  • • 8. Expand technical and vocational opportunities at both secondary and tertiary levels and strengthen linkages between the world of work and education and training systems.
  • • 9. Revitalise and expand tertiary education, research and innovation to address continental challenges and promote global competitiveness.
  • • 10. Promote peace education and conflict prevention and resolution at all levels of education and for all age groups.
  • • 11. Improve management of education systems and build capacity for data collection, management, analysis, communication and use.
  • • 12. Create a coalition of stakeholders to facilitate and support activities resulting from the implementation of CESA 16-25.
Of importance to higher education is the need to train well-qualified teachers and deliver continuous professional development.

There is also a strong role for universities in using ICTs to improve education access, quality and management, including helping to formulate policies and train education managers, building the ICT capacities of teachers and learners, developing Africa-relevant online content and creating mobile and online education and training platforms.

CESA 16-25 stresses the importance of harmonisation and national, regional and continental qualification frameworks to create multiple pathways to education and training and facilitate regional integration as well as sectoral and continental mobility of students and graduates.

Quality assurance mechanisms, and education monitoring and evaluation systems, should be established and strengthened.

Strategies to achieve the CESA 16-25 objective of revitalising and expanding tertiary education and research to tackle African problems and promote global competitiveness are:
  • • Honour national commitments to allocate 1% of gross domestic product to research and innovation.
  • • Create conducive environments for research and innovation by providing adequate infrastructure and resources.
  • • Link research to the development of priority areas and enhancement of global competiveness.
  • • Promote research on education and technical and vocational education and training.
  • • Consolidate and expand centres of excellence and enhance institutional linkages.
  • • Promote international research and development cooperation based on continental interests and ownership.
  • • Expand competitive grants and awards and other support mechanisms to nurture young academics and accomplished researchers.
  • • Strengthen quality postgraduate and post-doctoral education to cater for expanding tertiary education as well as meet demand for high-level human capital.
Improving education at all levels must be based on evidence, and lack of data on education is a major problem. The strategy calls for strengthened data collection, management, analysis and communication, the creation of education management information systems, regular information publications and support for education research and think-tanks.

The strategy proposes 10-year education sector investment plans for the continent, regions and countries. Governments should “increase current national education budgets by 10% for 10 successive years and invest in access and quality of the system at all levels”.

Resource mobilisation should be diversified through South-South cooperation, private investment, foreign direct investment, the Diaspora and foundations. There should be cost-sharing between stakeholders, efficiency gains in public institutions, expansion of private education providers and engagement with development partners in Africa and beyond.

Political will is key to the strategy’s success. At the continental level, a committee of 10 heads of state – two from each geographic region – has been created by the African Union. Its mission is to champion the development of education, science and technology across Africa.