A lifetime of University World News – Africa

Often time flashes by. But it feels like a lifetime ago that University World News – Africa was launched on 30 March 2008. Perhaps this is because so much has happened in Africa over the past decade, especially in higher education, which has clocked the world’s highest regional enrolment growth rate and has expanded exponentially. There has been a research awakening, huge expansion of the private sector and higher education has ratcheted up the political agenda, with growing understanding of its key role in development.

UWN Africa tackles three issues related to the continent’s development, the needs for: improved journalism; reporting that busts negative myths about African realities and potentials; and reporting that reaches a wide audience and improves communication and understanding of Africa across the continent and internationally.

A new narrative

During the past half century, African countries have lagged behind other regions that have clawed their way out of developmental stagnation, including by improving education and opening access to universities.

Swathes of Africa have been plagued by political instability, conflict and other problems. The international media portrayed Africa as the ‘hopeless’ continent, as The Economist infamously proclaimed in 2000. However, since political changes took hold in the 1990s, there has been economic growth and modest improvements across a range of indicators.

In the new millennium, the narrative in the financial pages has changed from ‘hopeless’ to ‘Africa rising’, but still the international media has continued to focus on poverty, war and instability, which occur in parts of the continent but do not come close to reflecting Africa’s far more complex and hopeful realities.

This narrative needs to change, not only for the sake of accuracy but also to avoid the discrimination that can accompany negative perception – in the eyes of the world, Africa remains brutal and deadly, a recipient of aid and pity rather than a partner in investment and growth, and in itself this impedes development.

Higher education development

Africa’s progress has begun to be powered by growth in higher education. For decades the focus of development was at the school level, where there has been major progress in terms of access if less so in quality, fuelling rising demand for post-school education.

There has been rapid expansion of higher education: from 1999 to 2012 enrolment grew by 170%, from 3.5 million to 9.54 million students. The World Bank reported that Africa has achieved an average enrolment growth rate of 15% in higher education, as Eric Fredua-Kwarteng and Samuel Kwaku Ofosu wrote in UWN Africa in February.

Also according to the World Bank, the inability of many countries to keep up with student demand in public universities has spurred private sector growth; while the number of public universities in Sub-Saharan Africa grew from 100 to 500 between 1990 and 2014, private universities expanded from 30 to more than 1,000.

However, only in recent years has the link between higher education and development begun to be widely acknowledged in Africa, thanks significantly to research undertaken as part of HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – with which UWN Africa partnered.

This has persuaded several countries to put knowledge and innovation policies, and higher education, more at the centre of development strategies. At the continental level the African Union Commission has foregrounded higher education, research and harmonisation strategies that are helping to spur the sector’s development.

A role for UWN Africa

University World News was launched in 2007 by journalists who were convinced of the need for an international higher education news publication to respond to an internationalising higher education sector. It had become essential for university academics and professionals to follow news and developments in countries other than their own, regionally and globally.

In Africa especially, universities lacked access to intelligence about systems and institutions around the world and even on the continent. With its strong Africa presence – much of UWN editorial and IT services are based in South Africa – there were aspirations for a UWN Africa edition right from the start. University World News – Africa launched in 2008 as a partner to HERANA.

There are several problems in African higher education that UWN Africa helps to address.

They include lack of reliable, systematic and quality media reporting on the sector, especially on regional or continental developments. This leads to lack of understanding of African higher education systems, impeding communication between staff, institutions and systems. Scarcity of reliable information also leads to policy-making that is not based on evidence, and lack of continental best practice and policy sharing.

UWN Africa aims to support the development of African higher education by: improving and expanding reporting on the sector; reaching a continental and international audience with quality reporting on African higher education; and improving communication and collaboration among African academics and professionals by enabling them to keep abreast of developments and gain greater understanding of higher education across the continent, in this way supporting the sector’s development.

Given enormous financial pressures on the media worldwide brought about by growth of the internet and social media, the open access movement and collapse of media advertising revenues, among other factors, UWN Africa’s survival has depended on generous funding first from the Ford Foundation and now from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This support has enabled UWN Africa to be fully open access, ensuring that readers in the developing world and particularly in Africa enjoy equal access to the information UWN provides.

Some achievements

UWN Africa has grown considerably in terms of content, readership and website traffic. Some 34 to 40 articles a month are produced. Numerous special reports have been generated, flowing from issues, publications, conferences or higher education events.

Registered readership of the UWN global and Africa newsletters has expanded. By the end of January 2018 there were more than 30,000 registered readers of UWN Africa’s fortnightly e-newspaper, and readers of the UWN global edition had expanded to 56,000. Some readers receive both editions, and all global editions run numerous Africa articles.

South Africa has the largest readership of UWN Africa at more than 5,000. Other countries in Africa with substantial reader numbers are Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya. Many readers outside Africa subscribe to the Africa edition: indeed, throughout the Africa edition’s existence it has been clear that it has served growing global interest in higher education on the continent.

Keenest external interest in UWN Africa comes from English-language countries such as America, Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as China, with its increasingly pivotal role in Africa. There are relatively high reader numbers in numerous other European and Asian countries.

Traffic to the UWN website reflects the publication’s global reach. In 2016, UWN attracted just over one million unique visitors and two million page views (broadly, the number of reads).

A breakdown of UWN website readers by country in 2017 shows that outside the top five – United States (20.4% of users), South Africa, the United Kingdom, India and Kenya – users are quite evenly distributed across 228 countries. There are 24 African countries in the top 100 countries in terms of website users.

UWN is active on Facebook and Twitter, which considerably extend audience reach and dissemination, and their readership has mushroomed. UWN Facebook has nearly 20,000 followers-fans, and there are 16,200 followers of UWN Twitter.

UWN Africa

Over the past 10 years, UWN Africa has developed a small but strong editorial and management team and a network of talented journalists across Africa who are respected in the field of higher education.

A major strength is that our articles on African higher education are overwhelmingly written by African journalists on the ground across the continent, and the majority of its commentary is by African academics; this is markedly different from the many news sources that deploy people outside the continent to choose and deliver information and analysis on Africa.

UWN Africa works with 25 journalists across Africa. We have 10 journalists covering East Africa, three in North Africa, nine in Southern Africa and three in West Africa.

A Paris-based journalist ‘covers’ Francophone Africa, drawing on (credible, cited) media reports to collate Africa Briefs, and UWN Africa also draws on the UWN global edition’s journalists around the world to write about developments involving African higher education that are happening elsewhere.

UWN Africa and the UWN global edition are partners in University World News. Content is produced in large quantities by both editions, and much of it is shared between them. However, UWN Africa and the UWN global edition are autonomous self-governing entities. UWN is a non-profit company registered in South Africa and headed by a board of directors.

The board chair of UWN Africa is Professor Teboho Moja, programme director of higher education at New York University in the United States, visiting research fellow in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and extraordinary professor in the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Other board members include: Professor Adam Habib, University of the Witwatersrand vice-chancellor; Professor Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust; Dr Bhekinkosi Moyo, head of the Southern Africa Trust; Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, former Association of African Universities secretary-general; and UWN Africa and global edition leaders.

There is, we believe, no publication that covers African higher education as comprehensively as UWN Africa, at a time of growing global interest in Africa. As UWN Africa celebrates its 10th anniversary, we can boast of major achievements. UWN Africa’s high-powered board and its journalists are working hard to strengthen the publication for the coming decade.