Student views – Keeping higher education tuned in

Students must become full partners in higher education development to keep it tuned to current and changing demands, according to the two students who presented their cases at the 14th Association of African Universities or AAU General Conference and Golden Jubilee Celebrations held in Accra, Ghana, on 6 June.

Felix Kwabena Donkor from Ghana is the president of the African Chapter of the Erasmus Mundus [alumni] Association. He studied environmental sciences through a joint European masters at Aalborg University in Denmark, with study periods in Germany and Portugal.

“We have to start seeing ourselves more as stakeholders and partners,” Donkor said. “Our voice must be embedded in governance bodies. It is one thing to be present as observers, as is now fairly common in Africa, but what students say must also be reflected in decisions that are made.”

Donkor has first-hand experience of situations where student voices carry actual weight in decision-making processes. In Denmark, he saw how education continually evolves under the influence of student input.

Tuning higher education

Elisabeth Nyarkoa Osei, of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, is one of the few who has experienced a similar reality on the African continent. She is involved, as a student, in the Tuning Africa project, a joint project of the African Union and the European Union which redefines higher education teaching, learning and assessment through a broad consultation process that increasingly involves students.

“If the heads of institutions and academics are able to have a good relationship with students, the student voice would be taken into account more and Africa would be in a much better position to raise a generation of capable graduates who are passionate about leading change processes,” said Osei.

For the civil engineering group formed under the auspices of the Tuning Africa project, she asked fellow students about their experiences and fed their ideas back into the international group that worked on defining a pan-African civil engineering curriculum that is based on learning outcomes rather than inputs and better answers to the actual needs of African societies and labour markets.

The world of work

Osei and her fellow students found the lack of connection between the worlds of education and work to be the greatest problem with the current teaching practice at their university.

“Engineering focused more on theory than on practice,” she said, “but if you are not taught how to use your newly acquired knowledge, your applied science degree has considerably less value in practice than on paper.

“Even though employers know the university system, they still expect us to be able to apply our knowledge upon graduation. But we can only learn to apply our knowledge through internships, which we didn’t have.

“The Tuning Africa project helped our faculty to see the programmes from the students’ perspective. We have a trial now [in Kumasi], where students are sent on internships. These are compulsory: without the earned credits, students cannot graduate.

“The professor responsible for Tuning [Africa] in Kumasi [Professor Mark Adom-Asamoah] has now become the provost of the College of Engineering. As a result, he has not only been able to change the civil engineering programmes, but also those of the other faculties!” she said.

Donkor also believes that more direct involvement with industry is the way forward, but he also believes there is a lot more that could be beneficial in an African setting.

Critical thinking

“We particularly need to more directly develop critical thinking skills,” Donkor said. “This would not only benefit the students’ contributions to their universities, but also their ability to perform their jobs later in life and their ability to continue learning.”

Both students are very aware that being seen as equal partners in education also comes with increased accountability and responsibilities.

“We definitely need to be less passive consumers of education,” said Osei. “We can vent our opinions and complain, but we also need to be better at going out there and finding opportunities for ourselves, rather than waiting for others to solve our problems. The opportunities are there!”

EU-Africa summit

The student session in Accra was hosted by Deirdre Lennan of the European Commission, which continues to make a strong case for student involvement in all of the projects it supports in African higher education.

The upcoming EU-Africa summit, to be held in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire in November, will be no exception.

“Preceding the summit, we will bring together alumni from all of our student mobility programmes,” Lennan said.

“We will not only look at Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus+ students, but also, for example, former Nyerere students. With them, we will discuss how they can contribute to improving African education.

“In two separate strands, we will also bring in examples of good practice in education processes and good examples of cooperation between universities and industry.

“The output of these three sets of discussions will be brought to the EU-Africa summit later and as such form direct input for the future of EU support to African higher education,” she said.