Meeting the need for higher education on a massive scale

Professor Love Ekenberg, a computer and systems sciences expert and mathematician at Stockholm University in Sweden, was recently appointed as International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) Chair for Massive Scale Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. As such, he will oversee the establishment of a network for massive-scale higher education in the region focusing on high quality, large-scale PhD programmes.

He talks to University World News about meeting the need for large-scale higher education in Africa.

UWN: What is your interest in massive-scale higher education and why is it needed in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Ekenberg: Personally, I have a strong interest in the issue after having worked in capacity building in the region for around 20 years for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the World Bank, and so on.

Within the broad regional context, Sub-Saharan Africa is poised to take tremendous economic and social strides forward. However, the gains are neither automatic nor guaranteed and we need to invest in human capital and education so that education can play its central role with efficiency – not just with regard to economic growth, but also as the promoter of democratic freedom.

The population is growing at an unprecedented rate and there is a strong need for competencies in a variety of fields. At present, the opportunities are unequally distributed and the region suffers in a variety of respects.

Higher university education must be made more accessible in order to cater to new groups of students so that we do not exclude groups from education and lifelong learning. This change in student backgrounds posts a new challenge for global higher education and how it is delivered.

UWN: The ICDE has recently launched a call for partners for its Massive Scale Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa network. Who should be involved in this initiative and why?

Ekenberg: Everyone with qualifications and time. And why not? This is a great opportunity to develop new methods for widespread learning access in a region in much need of it. What is important here is that we need to rethink how universities teach their students in a networked world. The challenge is to create global educations that function on a local level and this project will address these challenges from various perspectives.

Universities must prepare students for being citizens of a global society. They [universities] must furthermore play a part in strengthening international and regional cooperation, fairness and intellectual as well as socio-economic development.

Universities must be competent driving forces in the building of knowledge societies and in the transition to knowledge economies. Institutions must be strong centres for scientific research, technology and innovation.

In an effort to be competitive in a global marketplace, curricula must be applicable to local teaching in other countries and cultures and the global reality must be brought into the framework of teaching in local institutions.

UWN: What does the network hope to achieve?

Ekenberg: One of our aims is to utilise the rapid changes in technology to develop platforms for large-scale education and examination. Hopefully, this initiative will result in a model for efficient e-learning of high quality.

The programme will rely on offline courses, developed by leveraging participating universities’ expertise in e-learning training, and African universities’ growing experience with distance learning. In response to the need for increased opportunities within tertiary education in the region, not least within PhD education, we hope to build higher quality local university offerings.

I also want to attract the next generation of African policy-makers and to grow sustainable and more equal knowledge societies, and I believe that relevant distance education, well adapted to the regional needs and in collaboration with the public sector, will be an important tool.

UWN: How can cooperation between African universities be strengthened and partnerships with universities around the world be extended?

Ekenberg: Hopefully, through these kinds of initiatives. There is no quick-fix for that. What cannot be ignored is revenue streams: how universities are funded. Looking at the research it is clear that we are already operating in a global world. The change here is that the funding from these traditional sources of research money follows the economic cycles of society and will fluctuate, leaving Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) universities with the problem of sustaining programmes on their own.

With this in mind, universities will have to broaden the sources of research money to sources such as private donations, corporations and so on, or cooperate with universities in other parts of the world. To be able to do the latter, there needs to be a local workforce of PhDs in place. This is a catch-22 situation, but it can be solved by providing PhD education from the outside via networked initiatives like ours.

Love Ekenberg has a PhD in computer and systems sciences as well as a PhD in mathematics from Stockholm University, Sweden. He is also professor in computer and systems sciences at Stockholm University. In addition to the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) Chair for Massive Scale Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, in 2017 he was appointed as the United Nations UNESCO chair for developing a model for large-scale higher education in Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries.