An optimistic narrative for higher education ahead

Currently grabbing headlines and making a stir is Harvard-based cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now. In it Pinker argues, among other things, that on all objective measures of human progress over the long term, things are pretty much improving for Earth’s inhabitants.

“Almost anything that you measure when it comes to human well-being has increased over time,” Pinker reportedly told students at Arizona State University just last week, citing life expectancy, general health, time for leisure, rates of literacy and access to food, among other measures.

Although praised for his reliance on quantitative data, his foregrounding of science and reason, and despite his belief that progress is contingent on the decoupling of issues from political ideology, Pinker’s thesis remains, as one reviewer remarked, “deeply ideological”. As such, it is likely to cause stiff debate and elicit some healthy scepticism.

But for all of us, it is also a highly attractive notion, perhaps buoyed by the echoes of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative that emerged in response to rapid economic growth on the continent circa 2000. Criticisms of cognitive bias in Pinker’s work notwithstanding, if we take access to education as a measure of progress, we can see that the Harvard man might be on to something.

There is no doubt that the value of education – and higher education in particular – is not only increasingly acknowledged and embraced, but that its implementation is, well, actually happening. More people today are studying at tertiary level than at any other time in the history of the planet.

Africa, despite its late start and multiple challenges, is included in this phenomenon. Anticipated to have the highest rate of population growth, the African continent is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth over the next 30-odd years, according to a United Nations report released in 2015.

During this period the populations of 28 African countries are projected to more than double, and by 2100, 10 African countries are projected to have increased by at least a factor of five. These include Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

According to Ross Harvey, senior researcher in natural resource governance (Africa) at the South African Institute of International Affairs, this growth means one of two things: for optimists it means a “dividend” of young producers and consumers; for pessimists, it means a “growing problem of youth unemployment colliding with poor governance and weak institutions”.

Cognitive bias (pessimism versus optimism) aside, it is certainly not an either-or scenario. As Harvey himself is aware, a realistic future holds both opportunities and challenges.

Most of today’s developmentally-oriented analysis argues that education – at all levels – plays a role in harnessing the demographic dividend presented by Africa’s projected growth. Today, all African governments understand the importance of higher education in particular in development and are investing accordingly.

But the challenge is: can they keep up with demand?

According to Kevin Watkins writing for Brookings, a child entering the education system of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country has an 80% chance of receiving some form of tertiary education, while in Sub-Saharan Africa that chance is only 6%.

According to analysis conducted by Quartz Africa, in Africa’s 10 most populous countries there are just over 740 universities serving some 660 million of Africa’s 1 billion people. In the United States, by comparison, there are 5,300 universities and colleges serving a population of over 323 million people.

Positive trajectory

But the trajectory is still positive and there are pockets of highly impressive growth – Ethiopia, for example, had only two universities in 2000 but currently has 36 public universities and 98 private institutions, according to the ministry of education.

In addition, as many commentators have noted, demand for higher education is unlikely to be met by traditional, face-to-face delivery methods alone – a recognition that has spawned large-scale initiatives such as the African Virtual University, a pan-African e-learning initiative to provide open and affordable higher education courses across 19 participating countries.

The challenges facing higher education in Africa are both well-known and widely discussed – inadequate quality, lack of qualified teachers, shortages in financial and material resources, brain drain, low research output – and initiatives are in place or are being put in place to address them.

What is also concerning are the significant interruptions to academic programmes as a result of protest action. Just last week, Kenyan public university students protested over an ongoing month-long lecturer strike. "We are tired of staying in the university without learning. We want to go back to class," a protesting student is reported to have said. It is difficult to ignore the pathos of that comment.

Chronic disruptions to the learning programme have a devastating cost – not only for higher education systems but for individual students and their families. These situations – often seemingly intractable – remind us of the complexities of our societies and the way in which individual and group interests require careful management through sensitive and inclusive institutions.

Which brings us back to Pinker. The ambition of his work and his unerring devotion to science may unsettle, but one of the values of Pinker’s text – and the range of other narratives and books on positive human progress that seem to be currently doing the popularity circuit – is the credit it gives to the capacity of human beings to sort out their own issues and take control of the future.

It is entirely possible, as Harvey points out, for African countries – parts of which still do not enjoy the benefits from the second industrial revolution, for example, electricity – to reap the rewards of the fourth industrial revolution and the new technologies it offers. This has implications for the way we conceive of higher education – both in terms of its purpose and its delivery.

What is needed are the right kind of policies. In the words of Goolam Mohamedbhai, who has also made a contribution to this commemorative 500th global edition of University World News, with the right kind of plans and innovations, “there is no reason” why African countries cannot transform their challenges into opportunities to make the higher education sector vibrant and productive – or, I would add, to make the higher education sector a more prominent protagonist in the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative.

Sharon Dell is director of University World News’ partner, University World News – Africa and editor of the UWN Africa edition.