HE and the dawn of a new Marshall Plan for Africa

While I agree with Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, when they write in their recent contribution that the aggressive posturing of United States President-elect Donald Trump is far from helpful to higher education around the world, I do not believe it will seriously dent the system as a whole. Nor will it have a significant impact on African higher education.

Looking back, we see that the hostile policy of the Bush Administration during the early days of post-9/11 ultimately had a marginal impact on student mobility and academic exchange.

While it is true that American universities continue to play an important role in training a fair number of students from around the world, those from the African continent are predominantly supported by either private sources (including personal funds or foundations) or institutional assistantships and scholarships rather than US government-funded programmes.

Therefore, whatever 'harsh' policies the new presidency intends to pursue, its effect may be minimal on the state of African higher education.

Alternative partnerships

It is important to view the potential disengagement of the US against the growing and keen interest in Africa from other corners of the world. While the US government may opt to curtail or, even worse, ignore Africa in its engagement, other countries, from Brazil to China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey are proactively striving to consolidate their partnership with the continent. Russia has also joined the fold.

The Chinese engagement with Africa on social, economic and financial fronts is widely recorded, though its scope in higher education remains to be fully analysed.

At a recent event in Kenya, touted as “Advancing Africa’s Sustainable Development Agenda”, Japan – China’s ‘rival’ in Africa along with India – pushed the promotion of science, technology and innovation as well as capacity building and the fostering of research and development in Africa, albeit without specific reference to higher education. Russia, South Korea and Turkey also attended the rendezvous, crowding the list of emerging, established and historical players.

The two most populous countries of China and India each enrol some 30 million students in their respective higher education systems. The figure for the US stands at some 22 million – a figure comparable to Africa. What this suggests is that for a massive and massifying African system of higher education, the US government contribution to the sector has been and will be miniscule, and even inconsequential.

However, this does not mean that US institutional resources – including those dispensed through foundations as in the joint Partnership for Higher Education in Africa – are unimportant.

Sustainable development goals

While the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs,as I have argued in the past, fell far short of expectations in placing higher education at the centre of the global blueprint, some stakeholders are taking solace in two sections of the goals (Goal 4.3 and 4.b) which call for “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university" by 2030, and a substantial expansion in the number of scholarships available to developing countries by 2020.

The first, 4.3, largely advocates for equal access, while the second, 4.b, requires an intensification of overseas studies. These statements of the SDGs, which speak directly to higher education, fell far short of the comprehensive provisions anticipated in terms of revitalising the higher education sector in Africa.

China has recently pledged to provide some 30,000 government scholarship opportunities for African students. Most certainly, this figure dwarfs any government commitment to Africa from any other country in the world – either in the past or present.

Only rarely, as in at the climax of the Cold War era when both East and the West were scrambling to win the hearts and minds of satellite clients – and African higher education was in its infancy – were similar scenarios recorded. For instance, by 1990, on the eve of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the number of Africans studying in the country rose to 30,000, though some put the figure at around 40,000.

Huge interventions

Not many large-scale interventions may be feasible in the current era of shifting political ground, as noted by Altbach and De Wit, but in any case, because the African higher education system has grown massively, only huge interventions are likely to make a tangible impact. It appears that neither the US nor the other ‘retreating’ nations are ready for that, except possibly for Germany.

It was recently reported that Germany will be unveiling the so-called “Marshall Plan with Africa”. The Marshall Plan – named after the US Secretary of State, George Marshall – was established as a US strategic approach to resuscitate war-torn Europe at the end of the Second World War. In this strategic scheme, the US donated over US$12 billion – about US$120 billion in current dollar value – to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of the war.

The call for an African Marshall Plan has been in the offing for some time now. But its consideration could not have come at a better time, when the world, led by the US, the United Kingdom, France, and others, is largely looking inwards, disengaging from global partnerships and multilateral diplomacy, as Altbach and De Wit have argued.

While many in development corners may have legitimate concerns and reservations about externally-driven initiatives such as the Marshall Plan to Africa, this scheme had abundantly demonstrated its transformative power.

It is true that the rationale for proposing this plan, as stated in the communique, is largely driven by a home-grown interest in addressing the current and future crisis in Europe. Regardless, the symbolism and the weight it carries at this time of retreating global engagement and diplomacy is rather significant. The fact that Africa has now emerged as a global stage for a cacophony of interests makes this plan all the more interesting.

A new global contract

Pressing global challenges, ranging from the Zika virus and Ebola, to terrorism, narco-trafficking, El-Nino, rising oceans, Arab uprisings, European migrant crises, illicit off-shore banking, tax evasion and corruption, call profoundly for a new contract and sustained form of global and regional engagements premised on mutual benefits.

The building of African higher education in particular and its knowledge and development institutions as a whole ought to be strategically understood within the context of these global realities. What is bad for the goose is also bad for the gander.

It is out of sync with these realities that Africa, and the so-called developing countries, should continue to plead and appeal for fair, equitable, transparent and sustainable partnerships and development. It is abundantly clear that this has now become a matter of survival for all and a matter of ensuring a better future for all.

While such rare proposals as Germany’s Marshall Plan are appealing and worthy of consideration, the act of (current and future) inward-looking, self-centered and disengaged policies on the part of the US and others may need to be proactively resisted by all those concerned. Higher learning institutions around the world need to play a prominent, if not leading, role in this global struggle.

Dr Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is also editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at and This commentary first appeared on the International Network for Higher Education in Africa website.