UWN – Tracking the key issues in higher education

It was a bold move made by a group of journalists committed to reporting on education that led to the establishment of an e-newspaper focusing specifically on higher education. The establishment of University World News (UWN), and its Africa edition one year later, was timely because of tremendous changes in the field of higher education that were taking place worldwide.

University World News has kept the higher education community updated on developments in the field, and the Africa edition in particular has reported on issues related to the African continent that were and still are often overlooked by other media sources. The free-access newspaper has therefore played a role in keeping researchers, policy-makers and the public abreast of issues in African higher education.

My personal journey in higher education dates back to the mid-1980s. I was part of a group of South African scholars concerned about systemic inequities in higher education. In the 1990s our concerns were due to the anticipated changes that were likely to follow post-democratic elections to be held in the country in 1994. Working with other activist scholars from the continent, we found common agendas in our concerns over low participation rates of Africans in higher education, low funding levels, and the overall undemocratic governance of higher education systems and institutions.

A lot has changed since then. For example, in the last decade we have witnessed the expansion and some massification of higher education in Africa, with participation rates that grew past the 15% level. With that kind of rapid expansion, new challenges emerged that were reported on continuously by the Africa edition of University World News.

The reports brought to our attention issues related to growing costs of higher education and how governments were struggling to meet those rising costs. Student protests over delays in payment of student loans, increasing costs, demands for free higher education and other issues dominated the media, and raised crucial issues for policy-makers.

Expansion, growth and diversification of systems have been made possible in part through the privatisation of the higher education sector. Governments came to the realisation that the challenge to meet growing demand for access could not be met through the limited spaces available in public institutions.

Increased demand was happening partly as a result of the successful implementation of policies for increased access for those in the school sector and the realisation by the general populace of the benefits of acquiring higher education. Such benefits translated into increased social mobility and employment opportunities, as well as higher salaries. This was happening despite an increase in unemployed graduates.

Policy change

The attitude towards the benefits of higher education was fuelled by a change in policy by institutions such as the World Bank that started promoting the importance of higher education to all, and not only to the Western world. The interdependence of the world made it necessary for the whole world to push for the training of the workforce to support the world economy.

Public–private partnerships in delivering higher education contributed to the growth of the system. Private providers of higher education entered a space that in the past was reserved for public providers. Institutions also privatised some of their own activities by offering fee-paying, parallel programmes.

International institutions from the Global North as well as from the continent crossed borders and set up institutions in African countries. It is worth noting that most of the international organisations from the Global North were religion-based organisations. With massive privatisation new concerns were raised as governments had to pay attention to the quality of education that was offered, and the need to protect the general public from fraudulent qualifications.

As a result, many countries set up national accreditation bodies to monitor and register new programmes on offer. This was also done to ensure that established programmes in public institutions continue to be of high quality. We have read reports about stand-offs between some of those bodies and some institutions whose well-established and reputable programmes were under threat of losing their accreditation status. The attention given to these issues has provided opportunities for institutional leaders and policy-makers to address them.

Governance of higher education systems is an ongoing issue of concern and seems to parallel national politics, as we have seen in the last decade. Election battles amongst politicians seem to spill over into higher education institutions, as has been the case in places like Senegal and other countries. Student politics resemble political parties’ battles.

In some countries governments still interfere with the running of public institutions and have control over them, demanding the award of phony qualifications to politicians and their families. Some governments still have strong control over the appointments of senior officials in institutions. It is the responsibility of journalists and scholars writing about higher education to continue to raise issues and so push for the democratic running of higher education systems and institutions.

Coverage of key meetings

In the last decade, countries in Africa have started sharing more news about their systems of education. Contributions by scholars published in University World News have promoted the sharing of ideas, highlighted common issues and have offered inter-regional lessons based on past experience.

Key meetings such as the Dakar Summit on the revitalisation of higher education in Africa have brought together higher education stakeholders and have been hosted in Africa. University World News – Africa has been present to capture and report on these outcomes which have then been shared more broadly.

Over the past 10 years new agendas have also emerged in the form of debates that have linked the role of education to development in Africa, as covered recently in the first Africa edition of 2018 which covered the work of Manuel Castells in Africa. The special report focused attention on how higher education is perceived by scholars, politicians and development agencies. There are other new agendas that are developing and we look forward to their coverage in the decade ahead.

On this 10th anniversary of the Africa edition of University World News, it is impressive to see the work that is being produced by a small team, supported by writers and contributors made up of journalists and scholars who are concerned to highlight higher education issues in their countries and their institutions. As testament to its value, the e-newspaper has increased its readership beyond the African continent.

Registered readership of the UWN global and Africa newsletters has grown steadily, from a few thousand in 2007-08 in the publications’ first year of operation to over 30,000 registered readers of the Africa edition by the end of January 2018. There were approximately 765,000 visitors to the UWN website during 2017, and 1.6 million page views.

I would like to congratulate the team at the UWN Africa edition and their partner team at the Global edition, and wish you well in the good work that you do.

Dr Teboho Moja is a professor of higher education at New York University, and has been a policy analyst with a focus on the South African higher education system. She is the chairperson of the board of the University World News Africa edition, and chairperson of the Centre for Higher Education Trust in South Africa, which she also helped to establish.