Private institutions want to work with African governments

Africa is the continent with the youngest population in the world, and so needs to expand effective higher education, Dr Jonathan Louw, group CEO of Honoris United Universities (HUU), a pan-African private tertiary education network, has told University World News.

In an exclusive interview in Tunis, Tunisia, Louw noted how the fact that almost 60% of Africa’s population is aged under 25 presents a huge opportunity for higher education in Africa.

By 2050, more than a quarter of the world’s population will be on the continent, making it home to the future workforce of the global market. Tertiary education institutions need, therefore, to harness this opportunity to provide accessible, relevant and quality higher education, he said.

But the rapid urbanisation of Africa is presenting a challenge to students who want to access higher education. Cities are seeing a massive influx of young people wanting to get employed, wanting to find a future and a career, which is completely unprecedented, he said.

Even the private sector is struggling to meet the demand of students who want to enrol. One solution, Louw said, is a comprehensive collaboration between the public and private education sectors.

“The public sector cannot cope with the demand, so private institutions have a role to play in providing affordable, quality and accessible education,” he said. Affordability is key, though, as students need a quality education at a price point that remains accessible.

Maintaining quality

Despite such pressures on demand, tertiary education providers associated with HUU are determined to keep product and service quality high, said Louw. HUU invests “hugely” in systems and processes to keep the benchmark quality for its institutions. Its Annual Academic Summit, which was held in Tunisia earlier in 2022 (and where Louw spoke to University World News), is one example of this approach.

For HUU affiliates, quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning are overseen by an academic council established to foster the sharing of academic best practices across the network and comprising representatives from member institutions with extensive academic experience, he explained.

“All Honoris institutions meet the highest national academic standards and have received more than 90 international recognitions, accreditations and awards to date.”

HUU’s high standards have been achieved due to the collaboration of tertiary education institutions and their host countries.

Government cooperation with private universities must get the best results for students, he explained, adding that HUU has “open doors” to collaborate with African governments to ensure better private higher education.

“Collaborative intelligence is at the heart of the Honoris approach,” Louw said, adding that a collective effort that includes the involvement of governments and regulators is required.

This collective work is designed to help support the development of education and industry, and Africa has already many examples of excellence in higher education, he explained.

Best practices

These include the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) lab at HUU’s Medical Simulation Center in Tunis, and the HUU partnership with California-based virtual reality and augmented reality software developer EON Reality at HUU institutions L’École Marocaine des Sciences de l’Ingénieure (the Moroccan School of Engineering Sciences) and L’École d’Architecture de Casablanca (the Casablanca School of Architecture), both in Morocco.

Their students could experience virtual field trips, undergo simulated lab exercises and emulate real-life building projects. Wearing a headset, architects walk through a virtual building before laying one brick, explained Louw.

Medical schools in Nigeria and in South Africa are also looking at integrating such modern technology, he said: “So that would be the area where we would expand and roll out with this Tunisian excellence example,” he added.

South African Louw’s background in the healthcare and pharma sector has helped him appreciate the benefits of such tech in medical higher education.

Having trained as a medical doctor at the University of Cape Town, he later gained executive roles initiating change in large, prestigious institutions.

He has been CEO of the South African National Blood Service, which has 185 sites and 2,700 staff. And he was the CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed pharmaceutical manufacturer Adcock Ingram.

HUU began operations in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa due to their well-established institutions and reputation for dynamism, economic development and potential as influencers of other African nations.

Tunisia a ‘trainer country’

Tunisia, for example, has been described as a ‘trainer’ country that can pass on knowledge and experience to the continent and act as a gateway toward Africa’s development of higher education and modern methodologies, noted Louw.

“We are bringing these institutions together to encourage best practices and develop curricula at an accessible and affordable price that can be taken to smaller counties that don’t have the same infrastructure level or the same affordability,” he said.

The network is expected to expand into other territories including East Africa, West Africa, French-speaking West Africa and, ultimately, the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, but not necessarily with the same physical infrastructure as in Tunisia, Louw added. Member institution campuses, for example, may be smaller or even virtual.

He emphasised that Tunisia and South Africa could be examples to follow for countries with weaker higher education sectors, with virtual institutions and teaching helping to build capacity elsewhere.

“HUU can give access to those students [in underprovided countries] and, at the same time, encourage the cross-pollination that we can have academically, so we can train up the academics that are in smaller countries and enable them to be part of this wonderful population of academics so they can be up-skilled as well,” Louw said, adding that it is “a classic train-the-trainer philosophy”.

Integrating education and technology

Commenting on the integration of education and technology, Louw said virtual and metaverse tools could offer opportunities to students by providing “the ability to visualise things actively and experience them before they happen”, thereby bringing down costs and giving students “a completely different experience”.

Education is seeing “a complete revolution”, he said, noting that knowledge is now available anywhere, but turning it into wisdom is the challenge facing the tertiary education sector.

For this reason, coping with technology and keeping HUU partners up to date on the requirements of today and tomorrow is a primary goal of the HUU network.

Indeed, sharing knowledge through intensive communication is important for all participants, according to one senior member of HUU who also spoke to University World News.

“I think being under the Honoris umbrella really helps us all engage with each other with regard to our standards,” said Kim Gush, academic director of Cape Town-based FEDISA Fashion School.

“It almost creates, not a competition, but a levelling up between us – that we learn from each other where we can elevate our quality standards.”