Multiple positive signs for African higher education

Two of the biggest and fastest-growing economic sectors in Africa are churches and higher education. This has captured political attention and today the university sector is experiencing a positive turnaround and is seen as key to Africa’s economic development, says Teboho Moja, professor of higher education at New York University.

The expression “May you live in interesting times” is seen as a curse. “But I believe Africa is living in interesting times and it’s a positive thing,” she told the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education.

Trends had been mapped and the conference – held in Kruger National Park from 22-24 August, hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa – had heard about global changes in higher education.

“There is also a good story to tell, particularly in African higher education.”

Political interest

As one of the biggest and fastest-growing businesses, higher education had opportunities, was growing and was doing well. “That has caught the attention of both politicians and academics.

“For a long time our politicians interfered in education in ways that were unpleasant. It was interference and control. What we are seeing now is a positive turnaround where politicians are looking at higher education as a solution to the problems of Africa, they are looking at higher education as contributing to economic development.”

This was easy to say, Moja quipped, but she also provided evidence during a plenary titled “The Focus on Research and Postgraduate Study – Contextualising internationalisation”.

One example of the trend of political interest in higher education was the African Union’s continental development plan, Agenda 2063.

“Heads of state came together and decided that education has to contribute to making Africa a knowledge economy. You cannot have a knowledge economy without higher education institutions. Universities in Africa are expected to play a role in the generation of knowledge.”

Knowledge was best generated not in isolation but within an international context. “We have to work with other institutions within the region and outside the region, within the continent and outside the continent,” Moja said.

Research in particular was an area in which African universities had been weak. “But there is evidence that we are gaining a bit of strength, and that evidence is in the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – project that has mapped out data on knowledge production in eight universities in eight countries.”

Moja’s second indicator of shifting interest among Africa’s leaders was the African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar in March 2015. “Research was pointed out as one of the key areas in the final declaration,” she said. “That’s two major meetings that brought the whole continent together and tried to push for the internationalisation of what we are doing.

“I find this exciting and interesting because the initiatives we are seeing in Africa at the moment are in line with the growing political interest of high-income countries in terms of the university’s contribution to socio-economic development.

“And the political focus on building an African knowledge economy resembles the European Union’s 2000 Lisbon Agenda’s intention to strengthen Europe’s economic competitiveness and bolster social cohesion by making Europe the most competitive knowledge economy.

“We are seeing Africa taking the same steps.”

Transferable strategies

"It was crucial for Africa to identify potentially transferable strategies that could help bring about more positive changes in African countries,” Moja continued.

It was often asked whether Africa had existing or potential research universities. This was because only six African universities featured in the top 500 of the main ranking systems.

“We can raise concerns about how those rankings are done, and I’m not advocating for us to try and get more universities into the rankings. The point is identifying some of the strategies used in order to become successful.

“Whether we make it into the rankings or not, it is success as we define it for ourselves. Success in this instance is defined as universities that are contributing to development. How can we make sure that our universities really contribute to development?”

Moja provided four examples of positive happenings in Africa that are potentially transferable strategies.

One was the launch of the African Research Universities Alliance or ARUA at the Dakar summit in March 2015. ARUA brings together 15 universities from eight countries to work together. “We can look at the transferability of that kind of partnership.”

Another example was the impressive African Economic Research Consortium or AERC, which was established in 1988 and does a lot of partnership research that includes working with the private sector.

A third example was SAHARA – the Social Aspects of HIV and Aids Research Alliance – a research network that aims to address the impact of Aids on societies in Sub-Saharan Africa. And a fourth was HERANA, with which Moja is closed linked.

“These examples have common aspects. First, they focus on postgraduate training as one of their key areas. They have increasing publications and highlight some of the knowledge generated in Africa. And third, they build capacity for doing research as well as for development.”

The sustainability question

Moja turned her attention to the critical contributions needed for the sustainability of African higher education initiatives. This question was often raised, with genuine concern, by funding agencies and other supporters of Africa universities.

Too often, projects in African universities collapsed when funders pulled out. “We need to look at what it is that would help make our initiatives much more sustainable.

“And we need to be looking at sustainability elements that include our own private sector.” The AERC had a lot of private sector partners that were helping to do research as well as train masters and doctoral students.

“We need to be able to pull together partnerships between the private sector, institutions and government as we know that one of the weakest areas on the continent is the level of funding for research,” Moja pointed out.

A problem was that to give money for research, governments wanted to know when results would be produced or they did not see the value of investing. But funders asked why they should give money to projects that the government was not putting money into.

One interesting example of a sustainable international research partnership was the recently launched Institute for Cognitive Networking or iCON, which is funded by the United States National Science Foundation and South Africa’s National Research Foundation.

iCON is a virtual institute for cognitive wireless networking-related research and education collaboration between the two countries, and brings the academic, private and government sectors together to develop technology for low-cost, reliable broadband for under-served areas

The plan, Moja concluded, was to expand iCON to other African countries in future.

“We need to look at making our initiatives as sustainable as possible. I believe we are able to do it – we are already doing it, we just need to strengthen the capacity to really internationalise our work within the continent and outside.”