Africa’s economic transformation hinges on high-level skills

The World Bank’s spending on education in Sub-Saharan African has been growing over the past decade and has tripled from US$400 million to US$1.2 billion from 2018 to 2021 in West and Central Africa, with a significant contribution going to the higher education sector.

“The education sector is of high importance on the World Bank’s agenda,” said David Malpass, the bank’s president.

He was speaking at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC, in the United States during a high-level meeting on 17 and 18 October themed, ‘The Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence: A pathway towards sustainable development’.

About US$600 million from the World Bank’s investment has gone towards the African Centres of Excellence (ACE) programme, an initiative by the bank established in 2014 focusing on advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at postgraduate levels, specifically to increase the number of MSc and PhDs in the fields.

The centres, Malpass said, are contributing to the continent’s effort to produce a “critical mass of highly skilled [human resources] and research outputs” needed to address local and regional development challenges across different priority sectors.

“Africa’s economic transformation hinges on the skills of its workforce and its ability to accelerate the pace toward building an effective innovation ecosystem,” he noted.

Building coalitions

The ACEs, Malpass said, are a great example of how building coalitions for change can help to enhance tertiary education in Africa. He referred to a milestone of the centres training more than 61,000 students, with more than a third of them female.

Further examples of successes of the initiative were demonstrated by an emphasis on quality, which led to international accreditation for 90 academic programmes, “high-impact research” on critical issues such as infectious diseases, food security, the energy crisis and climate change, and the production of nearly 7,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, Malpass told a session of the meeting.

He declared: “The regional solutions created by ACE projects provide effective opportunities for a more resilient Africa, through leveraging economies of scale, harmonising talent, and increasing partnerships.”

Malpass disclosed that the bank has entered into a memorandum of understanding with six American Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), focused on sharing of knowledge and talent among the development and learning institutions, to advance “more inclusive and sustainable social and economic development”.

This could benefit Africa greatly as there was great interest by HBCUs in STEM students from the continent, in HBCU students studying in Africa, and in research exchanges and “cross-fertilisation”.

‘Spillover’ effect

The ACE project has recorded tremendous ‘spillovers’, which, among other things, have led to the replication of the ACE model, as well as attracting funding partners like the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement, or AFD), to collaborate on its third phase, also known as the ACE Impact Project, observed Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the Association of African Universities.

This was in 2019, and was done in order to increase the impact of existing ACEs by extending the programme to more centres.

As a result, a total of 53 centres in 35 universities in 11 countries, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, now participate in the project, he said.

Some participating countries had also copied the ACE, he noted, giving the example of Nigeria, which has established national centres of excellence inspired by the ACE concept and framework.

“In addition, the success of this collaboration contributed to the establishment of the ACE thematic networks which supports collaboration among centres in terms of training and research,” Oyewole added.

The ACE Project has delivered beyond expectations, with 30 universities benefiting from training the next generation of experts in various disciplines, to providing an enabling teaching and learning environment through provision of infrastructure, including state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment to drive applied research.

In total, it has supported over 80 centres in more than 50 universities in 20 countries across Africa with thousands of students being enrolled in postgraduate programmes.

Other funders of higher education

Other higher education funders were also part of the meeting. On its part, the US National Science Foundation believed that science has no boundaries, and will continue supporting research collaborations with African institutions, Dr Wenda Bauchspies, programme director, Office of International Science and Engineering at the foundation, disclosed.

The foundation was open to partnerships on basic scientific research so long as applying entities had a US collaborator.

“If you do not have a US collaborator, you need to get one in order to get our funding. We have the mechanism for doing that. You can also bring your networks to work with us,” she said.

Unlike the World Bank and several other funders, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has been contributing to the humanities in African universities, said Claudia Frittelli, programme officer for Higher Education and Research in Africa in the corporation’s International Programme.

The corporation has also invested in, among others, the African Diaspora Fellowship Program that connects African universities with the African academic diaspora. Now 10 years old, it has proven to be very popular, receiving more than double the applications for available places.

The corporation will continue to “deliberately” fund higher education policy in Africa, Frittelli added.