Quality education 'the best bet' for Africa
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Quality education 'the best bet' for Africa

Posted DAVID ADUDA from Cape Town

on  Tuesday, May 17   2016 at  15:17

Africa’s governments have been asked to invest in quality higher education for their youth to compete globally as jobs were declining at the national level while businesses were growing across the borders.

Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim says the governments must expand higher education institutions to admit increased numbers of school leavers, adding emphasis should be on science and technology.

President Gurib-Fakin said: “Africa’s “youth bulge” must be harnessed through greater public investments in basic education, tertiary education, particularly, in science technology engineering mathematics, vocational skills and innovation to build a valuable base of human capital that will serve as the engine for the economic transformation of our continent.”

She was giving a keynote address at a recent higher education conference in Cape Town, dubbed Going Global, and organised by the British Council.

Women empowerment

President Gurib-Fakin made a strong case for women empowerment through education, saying skewed enrolments in higher education in favour of males had serious economic implications.

“I know that most of the women in Africa cannot afford to work. But when they do, they are mostly employed in informal activities. We all know what this means: low productivity, low incomes, low prospects. We also know the constraints: access to education, credit, and markets,” she said.

“The gains to be made by overcoming these constraints are immense—particularly through girls’ education. By some estimates, the economic loss in developing countries from the education gap between girls and boys could be as high as $90 billion a year—almost as much as the infrastructure gap for the sub-Saharan Africa!”

Inequalities in higher education, low level of attainments, underfunding and brain drain were some of the subjects that featured strongly at the conference attended by education ministers, vice chancellors, rectors, scholars and researchers.

Diversity dilemma

The chairman of South Africa’s universities, Prof Adam Habib, explained the diversity dilemma in Africa’s universities and giving the case of his country, said social inequalities thrived in higher education institutions across the continent. In South Africa, for example, few blacks enrolled for university education and fewer still were females. Some institutions did not have women in leadership positions, even as heads of departments.

Prof Ian Goldin of the UK’s Oxford Martin School argued that such disparities threatened global peace and security and challenged the Western countries to support higher education in Africa and other developing nations.

For a good measure, Britain’s Minister for Cabinet Office, Mr Matt Hancock, used the opportunity to announce a 56 million Euro fund to support higher education in Africa under the aegis of Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR).

Mr Hancock said: “The UK has a world class reputation for higher education and we believe that high quality education is a fundamental right for everyone. We will push the boundaries of education, enhancing its reach and quality across the globe, by looking for opportunities to collaborate and innovate in international education. By investing together, we will deliver smarter young people to generate the very best future leaders, teachers, engineers and employers for all of our countries.”

Cadre of professors

The conference also addressed staff shortage in Africa’s universities, with the concern that the institutions did not have capability to attract young and new cadre of professors. After the halcyon years of independence in the 1960s and 1970s, when universities were citadels of rigorous intellectual discourse and enjoyed academic freedom, they were able to attract highly qualified staff. However, since the financial crunch of the 1980s and 1990s that led to salary stagnation and resource scarcity, as well as the intolerant political climate, universities have become unattractive destination for top scholars and professionals.

South Africa’s Minister for Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, captured the mood, reporting that the country requires some 1,200 new academic staff every year for its 26 public universities.

Dr Blade called for collaboration among Africa’s states through student and staff exchange programme, so that countries can benefit from expertise and unique opportunities across their borders.

The challenges

“Our universities have a big role to play in our quest as Africa to develop and to deal successfully with the challenges facing our countries,” he said.

“One of the main things that we need is for our academics to undertake research and produce quality outputs that in the end will inform policy and influence positive outcomes for the greater good of society. We must deliberately seek to change the location of our continent in knowledge production from consumer to producer of globally respected knowledge.”

On this score, East Africa’s plan to establish a common higher education area was cited as a progressive step towards internationalisation of education, given that it encompasses student and staff mobility, joint research programmes and common quality and assurance standards.

Credit-transfer

The chief executive of Kenya’s Commission for University Education, Prof David Some, said the region had agreed on common standards for admission of students, quality standards, certification and credit-transfer system from one university to another.

“East Africa has reached a stage where students and lecturers will soon move from one university to another within the region, pay fees like locals and seek employment where vacancies exist,” he said.

The conference was critical of university rankings, which though have become popular, did not take cognisance of the different environments and contexts in which the institutions operated.

There was also concern of the impact of insecurity on higher education, as this had led to large number of refugees, who because of displacement, qualified students could not access higher education and if they did in their land of sojourn, they stretched facilities to the limits.

One continent

The chief executive of the British Council, Mr Ciarán Devane, expressed confidence that the numerous initiatives in higher education stood Africa in good stead to overcome its current challenges.

He said: “I believe this century will be an African century. That’s because Africa has one very big thing on her side: potential. No one nation, or even one continent, can hope to adequately address all the big issues facing people. And because challenges are connected, solutions must be connected.”