Push for more women in higher education

African universities must work cohesively to build the continent’s human capital, specifically in mathematics, science, physics and health sciences, while also realising that more women must be included in higher education.

Discussing issues of access, expansion and institutional differentiation, University Yaoundé I’s Professor Charles Awono Onana – who is also director of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Polytechnique in Cameroon – said that women currently only secure 30% of scholarships.

But he encouraged delegates to the inaugural Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America or HEFAALA symposium not to speak negatively about African higher education.

“The continent has significant opportunities with more than 1,200 universities, but human capital is an issue and no one institution can wholly deal with the problems,” he said during the symposium held in Durban, South Africa, last weekend.

In 2014 the World Bank designated Cameroon’s University of Yaoundé I as a centre of excellence in information and communication technologies – called CETIC in French. The institution received academic support from the Association of African Universities for its winning bid.

The CETIC project is backed by the École Nationale Supérieure Polytechnique and France’s International Laboratory for Research in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics or LIRIMA, and is coordinated by Onana as director of École Nationale Supérieure Polytechnique, and Dr Maurice Tchuente, LIRIMA director.

Centre of excellence

Onana said the first centre of excellence has now established 15 projects in West Africa, but there was a dire need to boost scholarships to women.

In terms of the World Bank arrangement, the centre of excellence must produce 60 scientific papers covering ICT-related issues over four years. The World Bank provides capital to the university, but only after there are noticeable results.

“It is therefore imperative to establish partnerships with different enterprises and national or regional universities,” he said.

He indicated there were 11 such partnerships under way with institutions in South Africa, Kenya and Morocco, but international co-operation, specifically outside Africa, was critical to efficiency and relevance.

Pros and cons

Not everyone agrees with the World Bank-driven African centres of excellence project launched in 2014 to strengthen postgraduate training and research in regional priority areas. West and Central Africa now have 19 centres in seven countries, and this year the project was expanded to East and Southern Africa with up to 24 new centres in universities in eight countries.

Association of West African Universities Director Professor Oloyedi Is-haq believes centres of excellence should emerge rather than be created. Harvard was not established as such, but it has emerged as scholars and its leadership have developed the university’s reputation.

Ibrahim Oanda of the Senegal-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa or CODESRIA stressed that the World Bank centres of excellence interventions were government loans and higher education institutions had to recognise that reality.

Prior to this concept, there had been another model for revolutionising African higher education and its failure has not been wholly examined.

Lahore University of Management Sciences Vice-Chancellor Professor Sohail Naqvi countered that the Pakistani government had established science-focused centres of excellence that were today making significant contributions to several fields including psychology and molecular biology.

The government also insisted these universities be located in remote areas, arguing the students would enrol regardless of the geography – a fact that has been proved correct with the institutions attracting international tenure.

The case of Ethiopia

Professor Wondwosen Tamrat of St Mary’s University said Ethiopia had only joined the discussions in African higher education since major regime change in 1991.

“There is no doubt higher education is the tool for reducing poverty and boosting development and the country must engage in these discussions around access, expansion, quality and equity,” he said.

In 1999 Ethiopia had two public universities and 70 colleges, but today it has 36 public institutions and 106 colleges. Gross enrolment rose from 0.8% in 1990 to 10.2% in 2016 and student numbers to 730,000 undergraduates and 40,000 postgraduates.

However, there was an urgent need to boost postgraduate statistics, specifically those reading towards doctorates – currently only 3,000 – to staff the expansion and because only 8% of lecturers held PhD qualifications.

While Tamrat acknowledged that Ethiopia had made strides, more was required before the country could consider back-patting, given the country’s still small higher education participation rate. Ethiopia has expanded via brick-and-mortar, building universities nationally, and 56% of students are day-time attendees.

Tamrat said the country faced issues of quality and equity as the government focused on capital investment at the expense of human resources. Currently 65% of the higher education budget is earmarked for capital investments.

Despite this investment, he criticised the poor physical infrastructure and unqualified teachers and said there was a dire need for communication with business given the phenomenon of graduate joblessness.

Lastly, the government was aware of the effects of expansion and massification on the system, and the need for more graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths. It had dictated that 70% of public university entrants study sciences not humanities. Is-haq warned that while Africa needed science graduates, it should be careful not to lose humanities studies.

Addis Ababa University’s Dr Hirut Woldemariam added the government wanted to open institutions to every student, but was struggling to strike the right balance.

Nigeria and Mozambique

Is-haq of the Association of West African Universities said access and expansion in the Nigerian experience remained difficult.

While there had been massification, many Nigerians were still unable to gain access to higher education. In the decade to 2015, there were 164 higher education institutions in Nigeria, and by 2016 there were 702 institutions.

However, the country still sought equity in terms of gender, location and opportunities, and the need for more higher education places was now urgent. In 2006 only 113,600 students were admitted from the 877,000 qualified applications and only 309,300 were admitted in 2015 from among 1.4 million qualified applicants.

Professor Ana Maria Nhampule of the National Commission for Accreditation and Quality Assurance for Higher Education in Mozambique said before independence from Portugal in 1975, higher education was skewed towards white students. In 1975 there was one institution enrolling 3,000 students and the following year it had only 700 students.

By 1993, after a long civil war, the country had two institutions and drafted its inaugural national education policy that allowed for private institutions.

Today Mozambique had 49 higher education institutions including universities, polytechnics and mono-technikons of which 31 are public, but only 34% of the student body attended these institutions.

Nhampule acknowledged that investment in higher education infrastructure and training had been insufficient and there had been an incorrect approach to a national quality evaluation system. The current year was the first cycle of external quality evaluations and government had to consider the best means by which to make curricula relevant to the workplace.