Taking HE forward – The importance of dialogue

An African Higher Education Summit was organised under a theme “Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future” in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2015. The event attracted numerous prominent dignitaries including the former UN secretary general Dr Kofi Annan, the outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Senegalese President Macky Sall, among others.

At the end of this high profile summit, an ambitious declaration affirming “commitment to the objective of creating a continental multi-stakeholders’ platform to identify strategies for transforming the African higher education sector” was made.

On the basis of this declaration and action plan several countries have undertaken national summits to help advance their higher education sector. This article examines three follow-up national summits that took place in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania – and attempts to summarise the outcomes of the national summits.

Ghana – Crafting a national vision

The National Summit on Tertiary Education in Ghana captured the exercise as “Crafting a National Vision and Plan for the 21st Century” when it met in Accra in November 2016.

The summit, which attracted over 150 participants – from tertiary education institutions, civil-society organisations, think-tanks, government ministries and agencies, the private sector, parliamentarians and the media – had three main objectives: make recommendations to inform the development of a National Vision and Plan for Tertiary Education; propose an implementation framework; and provide input on tertiary education to inform the long-term national development plan.

The vision predicated six principles to develop a dynamic tertiary education system that meets the needs of the economy, enhances the welfare of all Ghanaians, contributes to nation building and forges democratic citizenship. The principles are quality and excellence, relevance, efficiency, accountability, autonomy and collaboration.

The strategies to achieve the objectives have been outlined under eight priority areas covering the next 30 years. The strategies stipulate inclusive, equitable and mass tertiary education; a cost-effective management and governance system; and establishing systems and mechanisms for quality and excellence comparable to international best practices.

It further notes the importance of catering to the needs of industry and commerce, advancing science and technology, building postgraduate education and research with international collaboration, and diversification and differentiation of the tertiary education system.

Some of the benchmarks include: a gross enrolment ratio, or GER, of 70% by 2047; gender parity by 2020; and 50% enrolments in online distance education programmes by 2025. It further envisages 10% postgraduate and 2.5% PhD student enrolment by 2030.

In the implementation section of the declaration – that emphasises commitment, collaboration, coordination, mainstreaming objectives and operational plans – it calls on all stakeholders, including development agencies, civil society and businesses to partner with tertiary education institutions and supervisory bodies to develop a vibrant tertiary education system in Ghana.

In recognition of the systemic challenges such declarations face, the summit states that earmarking portions of the Ghana Trust Fund to support areas in tertiary education is considered critical to national development.

Nigeria – A movement of stakeholders

The Nigerian summit was held under the banner “Exploiting Diversity, Differentiation, and Quality Assurance in Revitalising the Nigerian Higher Education System” in Abuja in November 2016. It was attended by more than 150 delegates from a diverse group of stakeholders including government, tertiary education institutions, employers, unions, development actors and the media.

The objectives of the summit were to envisage the development of a globally credible and locally relevant framework and strategies for diversifying and differentiating higher education institutions, enabled by appropriate legislation and policy recommendations for implementation.

It was also intended to advance the African 'Centres of Excellence' in the country.

The summit was guided by 12 principles including the provision of world-class higher education while promoting access, equity, accountability, institutional autonomy and academic freedom. It also noted the provision of adequate funding while pursuing management excellence, institutional collaborations, linkages and internationalisation.

The summit also identified seven priority areas for action and an action plan for each area on an immediate, short-term and long-term basis. These include diversification and differentiation, revision of governing laws and statutes, expanding partnerships with diverse stakeholders, leveraging information communication technology, promoting quality assurance and accreditation, and ensuring sustainable funding.

The charter, which spoke of a ‘movement’ of stakeholders dedicated to advancing the ‘emancipation’ of the higher education system, proposed to organise a high-level policy dialogue with federal and state authorities as well as trustees of private universities to define their obligations and responsibilities. It was proposed to prepare a 25-year strategic plan for higher education in Nigeria, which now boasts more than 500 institutions in the sector.

Tanzania – A path to industrialisation

The Tanzania summit held under the banner “Enhancing the Contribution of Higher Education in the Industrialization Process of Tanzania” was organised with three objectives – all of them focused on advancing industrialisation and based on the latest national development plan with priority in that sector.

The meeting was guided by five principles – also priority areas – that included advancing quality and relevant education, research and innovation, intersectoral linkages, academia-public-private engagement, and diversified funding.

The summit identified eight action plans which isolated over 45 specific action plans in detail. These focused on defining the role of higher education in the industrialisation of the country and an associated strategy plan; ensuring quality and relevance for requisite human capital; improving research and training through internship and incubation; and advancing earth-based industrialisation, tourism and agriculture.

One of the 45 action plans stated: “All institutions to share a common curriculum for development of human capital with specific skills and knowledge necessary to support the industrialisation process in Tanzania by 2020.” This is in alignment with the other unique action plan: “Review curriculum to include industrial internship as part of learning process for all programmes with direct link to industrialisation process starting June 2018.”

The ‘local heart’ of higher education

The multitude of issues surrounding higher education on the continent are similar in nature and include funding, access, quality, relevance and equity, among others. The similarities, however, tend to mask the magnitude and extent of underlying differences in the specific issues of the respective countries. If the soul of higher education is universal, its heart remains local.

As Tanzania is gearing up for ‘convergence’, the other two countries – Ghana and Nigeria – are pushing for ‘divergence’ of their systems. Ghana and Nigeria, in pursuing a differentiation plan, will thus be pushing against the grain as convergence, enhanced through isomorphic forces, continues to dominate the landscape.

South African higher education has been marked by violent strikes in reaction to funding issues – and yet the country has one of the most, if not the most, well-funded sectors on the continent.

It is true that Africa has the lowest student enrolment rate in the world. For instance, Malawi is often quoted as having the most elitist system, with enrolment under 1% of the age group, and yet some countries in the region have reached double digit figures: South Africa and Egypt boast 20% and Ghana over 16%, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics.

Even in terms of gender inequity, some countries such as South Africa are facing a female bulge. For example, the University of KwaZulu-Natal graduated more than 60% female students this year, which is down from two years ago.

The point here is that countries within the continent may exhibit numerous similar and common traits – and challenges. As we have seen in these three cases, the responses by each country to the same kind of problems or issues, remain dissimilar, punctuated by social, political, economic and leadership imperatives, hence the need for more dialogues such as the national summits.

Dialogue – A means to an end

The African Higher Education Summit further kindled the revitalisation of the higher education sector which started in 2000 through the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa – a programme established by a consortium of four (and later seven) leading foundations which earmarked close to half a billion US dollars. At the same time, the World Bank also made a complete turnabout, reaffirming the key role of higher education in “Constructing Knowledge Societies”.

In a piece published on the International Network of Higher Education in Africa, entitled "African Higher Education: A voyage of bankruptcy and championship", I mused: “It is thrilling that higher education in Africa has emerged from a climax of bankruptcy in the 1980s into a new era of advancement and advocacy steered by multiple players, including high-powered champions in the form of heads of states [following the summit].”

It is important to underscore that these summits must be considered as a means to an end – and not an end in themselves – to sustain the momentum and further consolidate the gains made so far. National higher education stakeholders need to strategically support follow-up actions relating to priorities identified by national summit declarations, the Declaration of the Dakar Summit and the African Union Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. He is the founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa and the founding editor in chief of the Journal of African Higher Education (former) and the International Journal of African Higher Education.