Consensus, contradictions in African higher education

The fundamental issue of whether Africa’s future lies in manufacturing beneficiation or the knowledge economy will be key to deciding what kind of higher education system must be built, says Dr Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s higher education minister. Meanwhile regional integration is essential – but African universities are not collaborating with each other.

Among other issues raised by African higher education leaders at Going Global 2016 were the roles of universities in development, lack of funding, ‘massification’ of higher education, quality assurance, a decline in social sciences and humanities in a science-obsessed world, and Africa’s entrapment in old paradigms when there is an urgent need to think differently.

The flagship British Council higher education conference was held in Cape Town from 3-5 May – for the first time in Africa.

Following a keynote speech by President of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and high-level responses, Nzimande said he was struck by levels of consensus around issues confronting African higher education.

Gurib-Fakim stressed a key role for higher education and research in economic growth and development, including greater investment in science, technology and innovation.

“At the same time, because of mineral resources Africa has certain advantages,” Nzimande said. “What is going to be the path of Africa’s development? Is it going to be a manufacturing beneficiation route or is it going to be a knowledge economy?

“We know that the North has largely outsourced manufacturing, initially to Asia. China has been leading on the African continent, including in the important matter of investment in infrastructure.” Deciding a development path would influence the future for higher education.

Nzimande – a social science academic in his pre-government life – said a second issue he was passionate about was the receding role of the humanities and social sciences.

“We are correctly emphasising STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – but what are the implications for instance of rapid technical developments on humanity, on the integration or disintegration of our societies?”

However, in the minister’s mind regional integration – which was “absolutely necessary” for Africa – was the major issue.

But as Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, pointed out in her response to Gurib-Fakim’s speech: “One of our problems is lack of collaboration between Africans in higher education. We must address this as governments and funding partners.”

Dr Pinkie Mekgwe, executive director of the international office at the University of Johannesburg, did not let this lie. During question time she asked the two South African ministers for assistance in removing obstacles to mobility. Universities were trying very hard to forge partnerships with African institutions but were “highly impeded” by South Africa’s visa regime. Pandor said reforms were under way to alleviate such problems.

’Made in Africa’ strategies

The plenary was titled “National Goals and Tertiary Education Approaches: ‘Made in Africa’ solutions?” and Professor Olusola Oyewole, president of the Ghana-based Association of African Universities, outlined some ‘made in Africa’ innovations in higher education.

While the ‘massification’ of higher education and lack of funding posed major challenges, one solution being pursued was most African countries developing quality assurance agencies that set standards and benchmarks for universities, alongside institutional quality assurance.

There was great emphasis being placed on skills development within universities, recognising the importance of skills that can drive development. Massification had led to large classes, and there was a need to train lecturers in how to manage large classes and to make more use of e-learning strategies.

“Implementing ICTs for planning and activities is one area that African institutions have been embarking upon. Video conferencing is becoming popular, with students increasingly assisted by lecturers from other institutions – even beyond the continent,” Oyewole said.

Further, universities had responded to funding challenges with a range of income generating strategies including consultancy, renting out facilities, running businesses and launching ‘parallel’ academic programmes for self-sponsored fee-paying students.

Stuck in a colonial mindset

The Mauritian president said Africa’s educational landscape had to be placed in historical perspective. Most countries had had post-colonial independence for more than 50 years.

However: “What happened at a certain moment in time has unfortunately been maintained.” Countries had kept the same system of education, for training administrators. “Not enough focus has been put on areas that will help to solve our problems.”

Panel responder Professor David Some, head of Kenya’s Commission for University Education, pointed out that Africa – which has 12% of the world’s population – produces less than 2% of world knowledge.

Gurib-Fakim said this was “unacceptable. We have to relook at our education system and ensure that it works to alleviate the problems that are confronting us.”

While Africa was resource rich, the big questions were how resources were managed and how they helped people. “Often we hear the narrative of a resource curse.”

Africa should look at countries such as Israel, Switzerland, Singapore and South Korea, which had no resources but had become giants in their own ways, to learn about successful strategies that had been followed to develop human capital, an enabling environment and mobility, attract back the diaspora and achieve development.

“Are we in Africa taking on board these low-hanging fruits in terms of addressing strategies for development?”

Naledi Pandor agreed on the need to think differently. “We always try and fit ourselves into existing paradigms,” she said.

“We juxtapose local, national and global rather than wondering whether we can be global in aspects of work generated on the African continent. And what can we do to respond to national and local problems? We don’t integrate our challenges into the academy sufficiently.”

“We also have to look at how the academy is responding to the challenges of transformation. We need to ask ourselves huge questions around the way in which we have shaped practices as academics and leaders in higher education, as well as students.”

Pandor believed beneficiation and the knowledge economy were not mutually exclusive.

“Matters of value addition, of beneficiation, of developing new industrial activity and exploiting our mineral resources through innovation and science are going to be important areas of future activity,” she argued.

“But in order for them to work for us, as Africa and as South Africa, we need investment in research and development – it is below 1% of gross domestic product in most African countries – or we’re not going to get the results that we want.

“We have to take the opportunities of research and innovation far more seriously. The number of patents registered from Africa is dismal. We cannot believe that we will be in control of our destiny if we rely on others to produce knowledge and solutions for us.”

“We need to use opportunities for knowledge as boundaries and bridges towards freedom for Africa.”