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African Higher Education in the World: Are They (and We) Ready?

Africa is a fascinating and puzzling part of the world.  It is a region that most of us are extremely ignorant of and about which plenty of stereotypes and misconceptions prevail. I was able to confirm my personal share of that ignorance when one of my sons recently tested my knowledge of the region simply by asking for the names of the capital cities of the more than 50 African countries. I was able to recall only a few.  Those involved in higher education around the world also have a sadly limited knowledge of and interest in the region. As indicated in the recently published 3rd Global Survey Report on Internationalization of Higher Education conducted by the International Association of Universities (IAU) in matters of international cooperation the only region of the world that considers Africa a principal priority is precisely Africa! Aside from that, none of the others consider the continent even a second or third priority.

Outfitted with my admittedly limited knowledge of the region, but also an awareness of my shortcomings  and a determination to learn, I traveled last week to Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso (do you know, dear reader, where Burkina Faso is?). This opportunity was created by an invitation to speak at a regional workshop entitled “Sustainable Financing and Governance of Higher Education Regional Initiatives in Africa.” This workshop brought together key representatives of sub-Saharan African universities, ministries of education, NGOs involved in education, and business sector representatives, as well as representatives of international donor agencies, multilateral organizations and foundations.

Of course many questions and concerns – and very few answers – were aired during the three days of discussions at the conference: Is it true that Africa is a lost cause? Or is the continent becoming a place of opportunities for new ideas and approaches in the face of a global economic model that does not seem to respond to the challenges of the region? Can the brain drain be stopped or reduced to more manageable levels in the foreseeable future? Is Africa condemned to struggle with what some scholars have referred to the “post-colonial trauma”? Or is the region ready to put its past behind it and move on? What is the long term viability of Africa’s systems of higher education and institutions? Is it all a question of money, or are more efficient institutional management and governance practices required? Are international donors intending to shift from their traditional approaches in providing assistance to the region? And if that were the case, what are the appropriate funding and governance models that can help higher education institutions in the region advance further? Can we really talk about a Pan-African perspective on issues related to higher education? Can the rest of the higher education world just continue ignoring what happens in Africa? And above all, where are the opportunities for international collaboration beyond the traditional North-South assistance-based approach?

Naturally, each and every one of the above questions has no simple answer (and if it does have one, it is most probably wrong), but at least some of them were extensively discussed in Ouagadougou, and concrete actions are being identified for follow-up.  The magnitude of the challenges being faced by higher education in Africa can seem overwhelming, but opportunities can also be overwhelming. According to a review of funding in Africa published recently by the World Bank, over a period of just 15 years, the number of higher education students increased by an average of 16 percent per year, climbing from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006, while the level of public funding only grew at 6 percent annually.  Despite such dramatic growth, still only 5 percent of the relevant age group attends university, which is unacceptably low in comparison to the world average of 25 percent. The combination of growth in enrollment and stagnant levels of funding is more acute in poorer countries where in the same period of time the total number of students quadrupled while the funding only increased by a mere 75 percent. It is forecasted that, if this pace continues, by the year 2015 there will be between 18 and 20 million higher education students, requiring at least twice the number of teachers that were in the system in 2006. In this context, as expressed by many African institutional leaders, resources for research are simply nonexistent with the exception of support that can be provided by foreign governments and foundations and in a very few cases by a still incipient private sector.  Options are few, considering that in many African countries the tax base is very limited, mainly due to the fact that the formal economy is still relatively small. For instance, in Burkina Faso, only 25 percent of the working-age population has formal employment while an overwhelming majority of inhabitants survive on subsistence agriculture or sub-employment which does not generate tax revenue for government.

Africa strives to be a player in the world. Its hopes are not exempt from paradoxes and contradictions. Even in isolated parts of the continent such as Burkina Faso, this can be easily seen. Streets are filled with men and women on rickety motorcycles alongside luxury vehicles, fancy hotels have been built just a few blocks away from houses lacking basic services, and even a magnificent mosque is being built thanks to a large donation of the Libyan government.  A good example of the combination of hope and despair is that while international delegates were discussing how to align higher education in Africa with the increasingly globalized and competitive world inside a luxurious hotel (by the way, also owned by the Libyan government)  several hours of gunfire could be heard during one night.

Despite many disparities in the region, a consensus –at least among attendees of this seminar- has emerged in recognizing that, in today’s world, a new approach in both talking about and in addressing the necessary modernization of higher education in Africa is required.  This represents an important change in approach if we consider that, as expressed by Jamil Salmi, “in the past even the World Bank considered that Africa didn’t need a sophisticated higher education system”. “Not anymore”, he concluded.

Without proper knowledge and skills, the hopes of the more than 200 million young Africans will not be fulfilled. A higher education leader from Tunisia was eloquent in saying that what he defined as the recent “revolution of dignity” that has exploded in many countries should be seen as a wake-up call to both the region and world, a desperate appeal made by millions of youth who are anxious and frustrated about an uncertain future in which limited education, jobs and freedoms still prevail.

How will this affect us, being so distant from Africa? Ritva Reinikka, Director of Human Development in Africa for the World Bank, bluntly expressed it this way: Ultimately, Africa is the continent of the future if we consider that it is demographically the youngest in the world, and the one that is in this respect growing faster than any other. Considering current growth rates, Africa’s population is likely to double within a generation. In other words, while the rest of the world continues graying –even Latin America- Africa will continue having the youth that the world will require. However, without proper education, jobs, and health, the African demographic dividend may become a major liability for the world rather than the asset it could become.

Even those directly involved in higher education policy in Africa tend to lean towards the pessimistic or cynical approach. However, at the same time, it is encouraging to see the emergence of a renewed sense of hope and optimism shared by some.

In addition, there are a handful of institutional and regional initiatives –some of them highly successful- which provide additional reasons for hope. Some of those initiatives have emerged as local efforts, while others are a result of international partnerships. For instance the International Institute for Water and Energy (2iE), coincidentally based in Burkina Faso, annually receives students from 24 countries, provides innovative training in Engineering, Agriculture, Environmental sciences, conducts research relevant to the region and attracts funding from multiple international donors. This is remarkable considering that Burkina Faso is a country with very limited resources and is ranked as one of the poorest in the world. Similarly, other countries have promising initiatives such as the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Tanzania (NMAIST).

Another interesting case of international partnerships to build local capacity is the Leadership Initiative for Public Health in East Africa (LIPHEA), an initiative convened by three U.S. and three African universities and sponsored by USAID/HED.  LIPHEA targets the gaps in health leadership and promotes enabling the environment for health practitioners. In less than two years, LIPHEA has provided training to almost 200 senior and mid-level health managers in six Eastern African countries, and has resulted in the further training of faculty members, development of new curriculum, and the establishment of 10 regional emergency response plans, among other capacity building outcomes.

In matters related to preparing advanced human capital, desperately needed in the region, programs such as the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE) have finally come up with ways to reduce the risk of brain drain. Keeping in mind that only 30 percent of Africans studying abroad return to the region after graduation, it becomes more effective to develop programs aimed at incentivizing more preparation “at home” as RISE is doing.

There are also ambitious plans for the creation of a series of pan-African institutions –albeit some controversial- such as the expected launching of the Pan-African University, sponsored by the African Union Commission. This initiative is seen by some as an opportunity to combine resources among existing universities, while others assume that it is an idea highly influenced by politics from the governments involved.

While there is a consensus in the group of leaders attending the Burkina Faso Seminar that the time has arrived for renewed efforts and a new approach, there is also a recognition that an enormous amount remains to be done, but that it is possible to envision a better future for higher education in the region. As expressed by Seraphin Moundounga, Minister of Education and Higher Education of Gabon, “it is time for Africa to move-on one”. He concluded with high hopes expressing that “with political willingness, and adequate technical support,” in 30 years, the world will be amazed by the African miracle”.

I truly believe that the future is not random and cannot be predicted merely based on extrapolation, but is instead something that is built through action in the present. It is time for Africa to build the future it desires, and for the rest of the world to pay better attention to it. It is in everyone’s interest.

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