Global higher education connections a ‘force for good’

The global connections of higher education are a major force for good and are helping to build a more open and empowered world, government ministers from South Africa and the United Kingdom told the opening plenary of Going Global, the British Council’s flagship higher education conference.

Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training in South Africa, and Matt Hancock, minister for the cabinet office in the United Kingdom, underscored the importance of education in transformation, reducing poverty and international collaboration.

They were addressing 800 participants from 80 countries at the Going Global 2016 gathering being held in South Africa at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 3-5 May – the first time that the conference has been held in Africa.

Higher education role and challenges

Nzimande stressed that South Africa was making a significant contribution to supporting higher education in Africa, including by training high-level skills.

In 2014 there were nearly 970,000 students enrolled in public universities in the country including 71,000 foreign students, with most of them attending contact universities.

The vast majority of international students – 52,947 – were from the 15-member Southern Africa Development Community, including 26,848 from Zimbabwe. The rest of the continent sent 11,944 students while 6,648 came from outside Africa, with the United States being the single largest country of origin.

Nzimande said universities had a major role to play in Africa’s quest to develop and deal successfully with the challenges facing countries, and needed to engage more in collaboration.

“One of the main things that we need is for our academics to undertake research and produce quality outcomes that inform policy and influence positive outcomes for the greater good of society. We must deliberately seek to change the location of our continent in knowledge production from consumer to producer of globally respected knowledge.”

To achieve this goal, Nzimande said, South Africa was strongly incentivising research production and had launched an initiative to build academic staff capacity in the face of a chronic problem of ageing academics who could not be replaced fast enough.

For instance, to achieve growth targets, 3,683 more academic staff would be needed by 2019. Taking into account the expected number of retirements, 6,170 would be required.

Although faced with such challenges, Nzimande said, South Africa had come a long way since the coming of democracy in 1994. In the past 22 years the higher education landscape had been restructured and transformed “necessitated by our unequal past and desire to have an effective system across the whole of South Africa”.

But despite momentous changes, including in the demographics of the student population, Nzimande remain concerned that higher education still in some respects reflected South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past.

There were lessons to learn from #RhodesMustFall – the student campaign to topple a statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes that rocked the University of Cape Town last year and snowballed into a wider movement for decolonising education in South Africa and elsewhere.

“While the campaign divided public opinion, it highlighted in my view the urgent need for the higher education sector here and abroad to champion a necessary process of constant academic and cultural transformation,” said the minister.

This was necessary to engender excellence and more effective learning as well as to expand access to higher education and serve the needs and interests of society.

Global importance of higher education

UK Minister Matt Hancock told Going Global that in the 22 years since democracy, South Africa’s government had reduced serious poverty, from 42% in 2000 to 29% in 2011.

During the same period the world had developed faster than ever before, with billions of people lifted out of grinding poverty and enabled to put their ingenuity and capabilities to good use and to better their lives.

“This unprecedented development over a generation has happened via a golden combination of courageous openness and the expansion of education,” Hancock said, adding that the spread of open democracy, open markets, open societies and open access to education had been the seeds of change, because these things empowered people.

This did not imply that all problems had been solved – deep challenges remained. While there was one hungry mouth to feed, one fertile mind unnourished by the invigorating food of education, and while illiteracy and poverty continued, the duty remained to empower and educate.

“In forging an open and empowered world, the global connections of higher education are a major force for good, for innovation, for knowledge and for partnership,” Hancock said.

The UK took great pleasure in welcoming students from across the world, the minister continued. “Our scholarships have provided life-changing chances for thousands across the globe.”

He praised the British Council for encouraging more UK students to study overseas and said that as technology marched on, there was a new world of innovative ways to learn – including joint overseas campuses, joint degrees and online learning that took advantage of the digital revolution to reach more people.

Hancock said research collaboration programmes such as the Newton Fund were bringing the best people together in universities and building bridges that go way beyond research.

Among other countries, the UK worked with Brazil and Colombia on biodiversity, Egypt on health and water, India on solar and China on life sciences. In South Africa there were joint research programmes to tackle issues in health, agritech and energy.

He noted that today’s young generation represented a quarter of the world’s population. Over the next decade, one billion young people would enter the global labour force. The number of students enrolled in higher education worldwide would increase by 21 million between 2011 and 2020, but only about 2% of these students would study abroad.

In many developing countries, where demand for higher education was expanding fastest, domestic systems were not responding quickly enough to meet need. For a new generation of 200 million young Africans seeking a more prosperous future, this represented a demographic window of opportunity.

The UK would “push the boundaries of education, enhancing its reach and quality across the globe, by looking for opportunities to collaborate and innovate in international education. By investing together we will deliver smarter young people to generate the very best future leaders, teachers, engineers and employers for all of our countries.”

Sir Ciarán Devane, chief executive of the British Council, told Going Global that he believed this would be an African century because the continent “has one very big thing on her side – potential. No one nation, or even one continent, can hope to adequately address all the big issues facing people. And because challenges are connected, solutions must be connected.”