AAU celebrates 50 years as voice of higher education

African governments should never have to make a choice between basic and higher education and would not want to get into arguments with foreign agencies about priorities around education, according to Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo at the opening of the 50th anniversary conference of the Association of African Universities, or AAU, in Ghana last week.

The head of state praised the association – formed in 1967 – for being one of the few African institutions in the 1980s and 1990s that “consistently stood for and promoted higher education” until the policies endorsed by the World Bank and some African governments, which downplayed the role of higher education in favour of basic education, had been reversed.

“We should never have to rely on the World Bank or any other institution to decide for us where the emphasis should be in our education. Education is key to our development and we must run our economies so as to be able to fund the education of our young people. We are not getting into arguments with foreign agencies about our priorities,” he said.

In a candid speech to the conference plenary, he said there had been enough talking, conferences and workshops on the challenges in higher education: “We know what we need to do. It is time to just do it. We have run out of excuses on the state of our continent. We have the manpower and must therefore summon the political will that will make Africa work.”

The AAU was founded on 12 November 1967 in Rabat, Morocco by 34 of the 46 higher education institutions that existed at that time in Africa. Today its membership is 386 institutions from 46 countries in Africa and one outside Africa.

Links with African universities

Akufo-Addo said when the AAU was established, its founding fathers had great hopes of institutions establishing strong links with universities in Africa. “By and large, they have made a success of the task set,” he said.

However, he noted that while there had been a rise in the number of African universities, such increase had not been enough to match demand.

In addition, there were still difficulties with issues such as quality assurance and harmonisation of academic qualifications on the continent. “All our institutions are facing problems of ageing professorial staff,” as well as “challenges with retaining staff who have been expensively trained,” he said.

As part of the solutions to some of the problems, President Akufo-Addo said, African universities should learn from each other about how to use open and distance learning to increase access to higher education.

He said the growing problem of graduate unemployment demanded that those in charge of higher education in Africa should find answers to the “ill-preparedness of our university graduates to the world of work”.

Relevant skills

Stating that university education in Africa no longer guaranteed jobs, Akufo-Addo said: “We must make sure that the curricula we offer are relevant to the skills needs of the job market.”

He regretted that the study of science and engineering had not received the attention it deserved and said engineering should be made more attractive to young people.

“All over the world, governments encourage universities to promote technological advancement by investing public funds into research and development to stimulate linkages between academia and the private sector,” he said, adding that Africa has a lot of work to do to develop such policies.

Akufo-Addo also said African countries have not been able to create the environment for academics to patent research findings because of a lack of intellectual property rights laws.

Nonetheless, he challenged the AAU to create a central repository to document the achievements of higher education in Africa.

“Higher education institutions, either individually, or in partnership, have contributed more positively to Africa than is known. This contribution should be harnessed, documented and showcased," he said.

“The development of skilled manpower, promotion of good governance, advancement of indigenous knowledge, care for the environment, and development of improved plant and animal breeds for food security are all in the domain of our tertiary institutions."

Telling Africa's story

“If we do not tell our story and celebrate our achievements, no one will,” he said.

Akufo-Addo promised to grant diplomatic immunity as well as look into tax exemptions for staff of the AAU secretariat.

In his opening remarks, Secretary General of the AAU Professor Etienne Ehile praised the role of the government of Ghana for its investments towards the construction of the new US$3.9 million AAU secretariat building, officially opened in Accra in January, and the US$475,000 secretary general’s residence, which is in the final stages of construction.

In a report on the AAU later in the day, Ehile said: “Here you can see the effort of the government of Ghana,” but called for all governments to support the AAU.

Describing the apex association as the “voice of higher education in Africa”, Ehile said the AAU was pursuing a programme through the Partnership for Skills in Applied Science, Engineering and Technology, or PASET, to achieve 10,000 PhD holders within the next 10 years. Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have so far contributed US$8 million to the PASET Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund, he said.

The association’s work with the World Bank was strengthening 22 Africa Centers of Excellence in West and Central Africa – each with an investment of about US$8 million – in the areas of teaching, research, collaboration, resource mobilisation and infrastructure, he said.