Private HE crucial for Africa’s development, conference hears

Private higher education institutions have a vital role to play in the development of Africa but, in order to be sustainable, they need to be successful, innovative and impactful.

This was a core message conveyed at the third annual academic summit of Honoris United Universities held in Cape Town, South Africa from 23-25 May. The group, established in 2017, is a pan-African network of private higher education institutions present in 10 African countries – from Tunisia and Morocco in the north and South Africa and Botswana in the south, to Nigeria in the west and Mauritius in the east.

The group is now eyeing Egypt, Kenya and Ghana as new destinations to grow its existing network of 15 institutions and 82,000 students across 70 campuses and learning centres in 32 cities on the continent.

“We prepare future leaders and entrepreneurs who can ultimately make a difference to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. They help our continent to address its greatest challenges by having a positive impact on all of our societies. That really is the essence of what we do,” Dr Jonathan Louw, Group CEO, told delegates in his opening address.

Louw announced that Honoris will be launching an “impact competition” in June, culminating in an awards ceremony in September. This will give the group an opportunity to celebrate its students and alumni making contributions to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through their entrepreneurial activities.

“We push to instil an SDG mindset in all of our students so that they become responsible citizens contributing to the change we need for economies to become more sustainable at the global level,” he said.

The Cape Town summit – the group’s third, following earlier events in Tunisia and Morocco – had ‘Education accelerated: Collaboration and innovation for the next decade’ as theme.

It featured discussions and sessions on such topics as digital content, immersive learning environments and online assessment, the use of ChatGPT and chatbots in higher education, and the role of gamification in transforming graduate attributes.

“Change is the only constant in today’s rapidly changing world,” Louw told delegates. “Developments such as generative AI, digital learning systems, online delivery modes and gamification bring both vast opportunities and amplified risk to our very diverse base of students with their massively increasing expectations.

“The world is about more and more. It’s never ending. So, as a higher education network, we need to push things faster and further. And, to do that, we must deploy innovation at scale in our group across Africa, starting from the core of what we have in our individual businesses,” Louw said.

Cost and benefits

“We are building a modern Africa for modern Africans and the rest of the world,” Laura Kakon, the chief growth and strategy officer of Honoris, told University World News in an interview during a break in proceedings.

“By 2050, half of the world’s population under 24 years old will be African. So, there is an urgent need to prepare the future workforce of the globe.

“We are working to improve access to quality of education on our continent. And, to do that, we must be financially sustainable to deliver at scale, but not at the expense of our students. We are student-centred and we fully understand that education is a large investment.

“And, most importantly, the return on investment that we offer students and their families must be good. Which, I think, we manage to provide with a high employability rate and short payback period experienced by our graduates.”

In its inaugural student employability report, published in April 2023, Honoris United Universities reported that 83% of its alumni gain access to the job market within six months of graduating. And Kakon said that, on average, the group’s graduates in South Africa managed to recoup their student fees within four months of starting to earn a salary.

“Delivering employable graduates is important because, globally, 63% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills in the talent pipeline, and half of African employers state that job seekers’ skills do not match their needs,” Louw said.

Social infrastructure

“Our shareholders define our offering as ‘social infrastructure’, which we provide to help develop the continent. Africa needs all kinds of infrastructure to build energy systems, health systems and the like,” Kakon said. “Honoris is helping to build the new generation of leaders and entrepreneurs required to contribute to the transformation of Africa and leverage the opportunities that the continent presents.”

Kakon added that the group is also planning further expansion, at various levels.

“We want to make more acquisitions. We are looking at Egypt, Kenya and Ghana. We are also supporting our member institutions to grow, both within the countries where they operate and beyond borders – both physically and online. We have a digital roadmap for our institutions, so that they can develop their online capabilities and reach new profiles of learners in new geographies.”

Other plans include developing the capacity for conducting advanced scientific research and delivering doctoral education at institutions in the group. For that, Honoris institutions are collaborating and building partnerships with public universities and the public sector all over Africa.

Honoris institutions offer 420 degrees in medicine, health sciences, engineering, information technology, business, law, architecture, the creative arts, fashion and design, media, political science and education.

The continent has a good balance of private and public higher education institutions. According to uniRank, an international higher education directory and search engine, 601 (47%) of the recognised African higher education institutions in its database are private, and 586 (45.8%) are public, with the type of control of the rest being unknown or unreported (7.2%).

“We need synergy between private institutions and the public higher education sector for the sake of the continent and all its people,” Kakon said.

Louw concurred: “The relentless disruption and fragility in higher education, pressures on the employability of our graduates to meet the skills demands of employers and, increasingly, global geopolitical instability mean we never know what’s coming around the next corner. So, we must work together.”

This news report was updated on 4 June.