The world needs strong higher education in Africa

“Any wasted neuron on this planet is a waste for humanity,” says Professor Jelel Ezzine, president of the Tunisian Association for the Advancement of Science, Technology and Innovation. When people are non-educated, problems are generated – locally and globally. “Supporting the development of higher education all over the world is of great importance.”

“It is fundamental that everybody gets appropriate education as well as higher education when possible and needed,” adds the professor of systems theory and control at the University of Tunis El Manar in Tunisia, while contemplating why African higher education is of consequence to the rest of the world.

Some countries have shown that “we can build strong higher education on the continent”, and contribute to the global production of knowledge. One is Tunisia, on the northern tip of Africa, and another is South Africa on the southern tip.

South Africa produces the most peer-reviewed articles in absolute numbers, Tunisia the most in relation to gross domestic product. There are many other countries where higher education has strengthened and is contributing to development, though “much remains to be done”.

Ezzine will join more than 1,000 ministers and deputies, senior civil servants and university leaders in Cape Town, South Africa, from 3-5 May at Going Global 2016, the British Council’s flagship higher education event to be held under the theme “Building Nations and Connecting Cultures: Education policy, economic development and engagement”.

It is the first time Going Global is being held in Africa. University World News asked experts for their thoughts on mega-developments under way in African higher education and why they are important for the rest of the world.

Bringing about change

As a former director general in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, founding director of Graduate Schools in Tunisia, a journal editor and consultant for global organisations, Ezzine has local and international and government and university experience.

“Sometimes a very simple policy can bring tremendous positive change to a system,” Ezzine points out. “In Tunisia in 1996 we promulgated a piece of legislation that dealt with research, that had a tremendous impact on the production of knowledge.

“It showed the importance of political engagement and also the relevance of the right policy moves to change things for the better – and of course, if the policy move is not the right one, it can change things in the wrong direction as well.”

While African countries work hard to strengthen higher education, there is growing support for the sector at the regional and continental levels through, for instance, the research and postgraduate training Pan African University, the World Bank-supported African Centres of Excellence initiatives, and regional university associations and economic groupings.

“The main ‘maestro’ is the African Union,” says Ezzine. Higher education’s role in capacity building and human resource development has become important for the African Union, and is emphasised in its Agenda 2063 continental development framework.

“The political will is there because nobody can question any more the importance and role of higher education in developing the socio-economic dynamics of any country.”

There has been a great deal of continental activity around higher education – an example is the first African Higher Education Summit held in Senegal last March – and harmonisation.

The new Arusha Convention is supporting qualification recognition. The Julius Nyerere programme is providing mobility scholarships and mechanisms to structure university cooperation, and is promoting the portability of degrees. There are major harmonisation actions around quality assurance and accreditation.

Such actions, says Ezzine, are key to overcoming great differences between countries and enhancing inter-African mobility.

Humungous challenges

But this could all be wishful thinking if it is not followed by political engagement, the right investment in the sector, and the right policies for higher education systems and research, he argues. Indeed, developing higher education systems is a huge challenge everywhere.

“Each country has its own kind of challenges and problems. In Africa the problems tend to be more acute because of underdevelopment, lack of funds and lack of coordination between the different stakeholders and institutions,” Ezzine continues.

For instance, in Africa only 8% of the age cohort is enrolled in tertiary education, compared to an international average of around 22%. African countries need to develop infrastructure, receive more funding and attract more academics to expand further.

“All these elements are humungous challenges. For instance, to have the right faculty capable of doing the right teaching as well as supervision of PhD students is not an easy matter. When you compound that with the brain drain, it makes the challenge very difficult.

“Also, Africa is going through a demographic transition and has to respond very swiftly to a coming tsunami of youth that has to be educated and trained, and it is not an easy task.”

Africa on the move

There is a positive side to Africa being the most youthful continent, says James Otieno Jowi, executive director of the African Network for Internationalization of Education. “This is very important for global higher education.

“First, it means that enrolments in higher education will grow tremendously. Africa is now the region with the fastest growing enrolment rates. There are reports of increases in numbers of universities in almost all African countries. It also means that Africa will be a major player in global mobility, with many young people seeking study opportunities in other countries.”

There is renewed interest in African higher education, Jowi adds, both within and outside the continent. “Non-traditional players like China, India and Brazil have entered the African higher education space with unprecedented vigour. China has opened 60 Confucius Institutes in Africa and has committed to offer 150,000 scholarships for developing countries.”

With African countries experiencing economic growth, its driver – the knowledge sector – is growing. Also expanding is the middle-class, which means that increasing numbers of Africans will be able to make choices regarding university.

“Higher education and international higher education are taking centre stage in Africa. African stakeholders are calling for more level ground in collaborations as a move from the imbalances and unfairness that have characterised historical collaborations.

“Going Global is an opportunity for global higher education to demonstrate responsibility in collaborations with Africa, so that such efforts spur developments rather than stifling Africa’s efforts.” There are “wonderful opportunities” for developing research partnerships especially.

Africa also presents global challenges ranging from poverty to environmental problems, global inequities and low knowledge production. There are numerous opportunities for higher education to engage in interventions around the global Sustainable Development Goals.

Old knowledge, best brains

Dr Peggy Oti-Boateng, senior programme specialist for science and technology at UNESCO’s regional office in Zimbabwe, says there is a lot going on in higher education in the area of educational technology through, for instance, the award-winning African Virtual University.

She also coordinates the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, a regional non-governmental agency that facilitates collaboration among institutions to support science, engineering and technology. It has some 200 member institutions in 37 countries.

The most active members are in Anglophone African countries. It is important to understand the great differences between universities in Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries, because of their colonial pasts – as well as differences within these groupings.

Africa, says Oti-Boateng, has varied cultures and rich natural resources that the world is interested in studying. There is also a wealth of indigenous knowledge, which brings about “quicker innovation, because you are starting from what you know today”.

The African islands, for instance, have exceptional knowledge of the oceans, which needs documenting by universities, and this is the case in many other fields such as agriculture and herbal medicines.

Perversely, what African higher education offers the world is its best brains. Universities in the West are brimming with African academics and while there are diaspora initiatives, Oti-Boateng believes more can be done to draw on talented Africans with feet in different worlds.

There need to be more partnerships between African and international universities so that higher education can draw on “diaspora people who understand our issues and aspirations, so that we can work together on common fronts”.

The future

And what about the future?

Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association or SARUA, believes harmonisation will continue to be the big goal and challenge for higher education, and it is needed “sooner rather than later” as universities strive for greater collaboration.

Regional university associations are ideally placed to advance harmonisation efforts, such as bringing quality assurance activities and agencies together, but this is not funded at the regional level. “The political will is not there as regards to the finances.” Other big areas of interest currently “on the move” are climate change and the needs around online and access.

Ahead of Going Global there will be a SARUA leadership dialogue on open access and African research publishing which, says Kotecha, will look at how open access publication policies could tackle problems of access to journals by African universities and ensure the effective dissemination of Southern African research to meet the needs of the region.

“African universities should really lobby publishers via an Africa-wide campaign to bring down the increasing costs of journals, and that will have an impact on their research.”

Going Global

At Going Global, Jelel Ezzine says, it will be good to see people exchanging successful practices and trying to adapt them to their contexts. Gathering Africans to exchange ideas and practices is of “extreme importance”.

“I hope many Africans will be present and will share their views, concerns and visions with the rest of the world so that we can all work together for the benefit of everybody.”

James Otieno Jowi agrees that it is positive to have Going Global in Africa. Concerted efforts could eradicate the continent’s scars, and the conference will present opportunities to discuss major issues such as the extent to which Africa has gone global, whether it is still at the periphery of the knowledge society and barriers to its participation.

“African higher education leaders need to take their place at the table and discuss these issues. The future of Africa’s youth is at stake.”