Project seen as ‘great achievement’ for HE in Africa

The World Bank-sponsored African Centres of Excellence (ACEs) implemented across the continent have contributed significantly to the growth in the number of doctorates and masters degrees on the continent over the past eight years, graduating 2,370 PhD and a total of 11,539 MSc degree students.

The project, divided into ACE I, implemented in the West and Central Africa regions, and ACE II, implemented in the Eastern and Southern Africa regions since 2014, also gobbled up a total of US$722 million, with the bank contributing US$650 million, while the French Development Agency, or AFD, spent US$72 million.

The money was spent on 81 ACEs in 20 countries across the two regions, where a total of 2,200 research publications have been produced, 1,000 faculty and PhD students’ exchanges have happened, while some 375 memorandums of understanding have been signed.

At the same time, the centres externally generated a total of US$50 million while facilitating 5,400 internships for its students, said Roberta Bassett, the World Bank’s global lead for Tertiary Education and senior education specialist.

“This project represents some of the greatest achievements in higher education in Africa in the past 20 years,” Bassett noted.

“As a model of excellence, it has proved that it is possible to be replicated in other parts of the world and can be expanded in other parts of Africa,” she told a webinar on ‘Strengthening Human Capital Development in Africa’, hosted by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).

“These results also include improved learning environments in host universities, and numerous university-industry partnerships,” added Bassett.

STEM, health and agriculture

As part of the project, degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, health and agriculture have been offered as they are all seen as a priority for Africa’s development.

About 68% of programmes offered under ACE I were in STEM, while health and agriculture had 16% at MSc level. At PhD level, 51% of the programmes were in STEM while 20% and 29% of the courses were in agriculture and health respectively.

With ACE II, STEM programmes were also the most popular at 46%, followed by health at 43%, while agriculture trailed at 11%, all at MSC level. The picture was very different at PhD level, where 52% of degrees taken were in STEM, while 22% were taken by health and 27% of the degrees were in agriculture.

The project in some countries – specifically Mozambique and Malawi – will go on for another “five to six years” where the bank has partnered with RUFORUM in a US$70 million initiative on agriculture education and research known as ACE II-AF. Under the financing, six additional centres will be established in the two countries.

In its entirety, Bassett noted that the ACE was focused on boosting human capital in Africa “in the perspective of improving the quality of academics for future quality graduates”.

It was also intended to train more PhD and MSc graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa, while boosting research and applied research, to complement what universities have been doing.

Curriculum review

One way of developing human capital capable of steering Africa into the next phase of development is by reviewing curricula used in African universities, according to Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, or AAU.

He noted the curricula were “colonial”, inherited from former rulers of the continent, and remained unchanged for several decades.

It was also time to improve education systems to lay more emphasis on learning processes that promoted lifelong learning, equipping learners with competencies that include ICT and digital skills, for a “digitally empowered human capital”, said Oyewole.

It was a shame that some studies had shown that as many as 38% of African youth desired to leave the continent permanently, to work abroad owing to lack of opportunities locally, he said.

“We know that Africa has the fastest-growing population, and the number of youths will double to 850 million by 2055. This simply means that job creation is going to be very critical for the continent,” he added.

Changing curricula, however, will require both financial and policy support from governments if the changes are to be sustainable, noted Dr Stephen Onakuse, president of the European Alliance on Agricultural Knowledge for Development (Agrinatura), a network of life sciences, universities and research bodies.

Government-universities disconnect

This will ensure that there is ‘progressive’ education development in Africa, and also end the current ‘neglect’ of the higher education sector by governments, Onakuse said.

He noted: “The higher education sector in Africa is currently in a mess because there is a disconnect between governments and the sector.”

While it was true that the sector was undergoing transformation, it was also true that political leadership had neglected universities, starving them of budgets for research.

“What do you [governments] change when you are not even contributing to research and development through funding?” he posed.

Giving the example of the Republic of Ireland where he lives and teaches, Onakuse noted that the country had made comprehensive changes to its education system, starting with a public participation process in 1995, and leading to the enactment of the current Education Act in 1998.

Professor Adipala Ekwamu, RUFORUM executive secretary, said that, for universities to make a real impact in the development of the continent, it was important that they continually engage in dialogue with policymakers on issues touching on policy.

This will create space for the institutions to align their work with the policy directions of governments, as they define their development strategies.

“There should be no giving up for universities in pushing for policy linkages. We must always continue seeking to contribute to policy decisions by governments,” Ekwamu added.

In addition, universities must amplify their voices and “broadcast” what they are doing, so that the wider society as well as the authorities appreciated their contribution to development, he counselled.

The question of relevance of education programmes offered by universities in Africa also needs to be addressed, according to Dr Oliver Kirui, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“It is a pity that graduates cannot do jobs as needed by industry due to a lack of relevant skills, the only exception being doctors,” he observed.

If the situation were to be left unchecked and, as more and more foreign companies invested in Africa, the firms may be left with no choice in future but to import labour into the continent, he warned.

The remedy to the trend lay in making the right policy choices and in making targeted policy interventions, coupled with university-industry collaborations.