Higher education – The driving force of human development

As the number of public and private universities in many African countries continues to increase, there is an urgent need for institutions of higher learning to reaffirm the enduring value of education as a powerful foundation for life, career, citizenship and human development.

It is a truism that individuals, families, and communities in all African nations and indeed the world need education. The international icon Nelson Mandela noted that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. He noted further that education has the capability to transform an individual inside out.

While there are several benefits of investing in higher education, it is a reality that education enables us to approach problems through multiple ways of learning and knowing; to think deeply, critically, creatively, to listen openly and reflectively, and engage in dialogue.

Education also develops curiosity in us and enables us to learn to ask harder and deeper questions whose answers may help in moving the needle in our health, learning, and government institutions, communities, and society at large.

In fact, Lincoln and Lynham noted that education and research in particular that take place in our universities help prepare learners to deal with the unexpected, the imaginative, the creative, the unusual, the deviation, and the messiness – all of which are unpredictable and simultaneously desirable characteristics of human life and activity.

Thus, besides acquisition of skills through learning, education also enables us to learn from others and to appreciate differences and similarities in others. In fact, in the case of South Africa, the power of education was witnessed in assisting not only with nation building but through peace, justice and reconciliation processes after the country successfully held the first multiracial elections in 1994.

Meaning of development

While the term ‘development’ has been defined in many ways depending on people’s study discipline, for the purpose of this article, development can be looked at as a complex process that aims at improving standards of living. Michael Todaro, a leading development economist, defines development as a multidimensional process involving the reorganization and reorientation of entire economic and social systems.

In African contexts, development should be looked at as aiming to increase the capacity of people to influence their future by the choices that they make. True development has cultural, environmental, socio-economic, political, technological, and psychological dimensions. In fact, it has been correctly argued that real development must be people-centered and seek to transform and improve people’s living conditions.

The United Nations Development Programme defines development in terms of human development and notes that it is a process of enlarging the range of people’s choice by increasing their opportunities for education, healthcare, income, employment and covering the full range of human choices, from a sound physical environment to socio-economic and political systems.

Therefore, when development is examined from the human perspective, it involves individuals in society having access to quality health services, quality education, lifelong learning opportunities, and opportunities to earn income aimed at improving their purchasing power.

Investment in human capital

In the 21st century and beyond, knowledge, entrepreneurship and the mastery of information and communication technologies should become Africa’s best competitive advantage, hence the importance of investing in people’s education and training.

Higher education institutions should play a leading role in assisting people in Africa by enabling them to become active producers of knowledge, goods and services and not being merely consumers of the knowledge, products and services offered by others. The learning systems should cultivate and nurture knowledge production based on both Western and non-Western knowledge systems – grounded in African indigenous, cultural, political and socio-economic realities and contexts.

While foreign direct investment and trade liberalisation may sound like important development agenda items for Africa, without investing in education and health, Africa will remain disadvantaged when compared to the rest of the world.

As I have noted in my previous writings, education is the driving force of human development and the key to Africa’s survival is through investment in education. People with knowledge and information technology skills will not only survive in this century but they will thrive. Experience has shown that while Africa has vast physical and natural resources, intangible assets such as knowledge and information technology now determine wealth creation.

The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, in his foreword to the report on Unlocking the Potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, is optimistic, correctly observing that Africa stands on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and it is crucial that Africa does not miss out.

In order for Africa to participate and benefit from the 4IR characterised by the use of artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain and the internet of things, the universities must drive these changes. Having said that, the full impact of the fourth industrial revolution or the direction it will take is not yet known, hence the importance of remaining open to continued learning.

African economies

For African economies to industrialise and become competitive worldwide, they need people who possess the capacity for empathy, communication skills, problem-solving skills, technological skills, and knowledge required for development.

Without these skills and knowledge, physical capital and natural resources remain underutilised or are exploited by those from outside Africa. In fact, the World Bank correctly notes that global wealth today is concentrated less and less in physical assets such as factories, mineral resources, land, tools, buildings and machinery.

It is now a reality that knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people are increasingly critical to the world and national economies. Knowledge is and has been at centre-stage of human and economic development. As the World Bank notes, knowledge enlightens the lives of people and is crucial to any development effort.

In terms of economic growth which is a precondition to human development, M L Jhingan observed that economic equality of the population remains low when there is little knowledge of available natural resources, possible alternative production techniques, necessary skills, existing market conditions and opportunities and institutions that might be created to favour economising effort.

This holds true not only in Africa but worldwide; hence, the importance of investing in human capital aimed at not only equipping people with knowledge, skills and attitudes, but also nurturing their ability to remain continuously curious, imaginative and willing to engage in learning for a lifetime. As Albert Einstein observed, imagination is more important than knowledge for it encircles the world.

Thus, real education offered in institutions of higher learning is the driving force of human development and should continuously serve to rekindle and sustain people’s imagination, creativity and innovation.

Fredrick Muyia Nafukho is professor of educational administration and human resource development and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Education and Human Development, Texas A&M University, United States. He can be reached at