The African Higher Education Summit concluded last week with an action plan to dramatically increase higher education participation across the continent over the next 50 years.
The plan would see African higher education enrolment ratios rise to 50% by 2063, at which point it projects global participation will have increased to the same level – 50% – from the current rate of 32%. The current higher education enrolment ratio for sub-Saharan Africa is 8% whereas Arab states (including those outside of the African continent) enroll 26% of college-aged students today. (In comparison, the participation rate in the developed world is much higher still, and was just under 76% in 2012.)
Accompanying this target is a call for a dramatic increase in African investment in higher education, greater research spending, strong links to African scholars in the diaspora, and more effective coordination of planning and delivery of higher education programmes at the institutional, national, and continental levels.
The action plan is the result of a landmark summit on higher education hosted in Senegal last week. It was convened by TrustAfrica, a non-governmental organisation focused on governance, development, and philanthropy, in partnership with several other groups, including the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank, the UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, and the Association of African Universities. The summit was attended by 500 delegates, including prime ministers, presidents, and ministers of state from across Africa, as well as students and academics. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, attended, as did Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.
The result of the meeting is nothing less than a dramatic reimagining of higher education in Africa, and the highest-profile presentation to date of a shared vision for an expanded role for advanced education in the continent’s continuing development.
How we got here
A companion e-book produced by TrustAfrica and the online newspaper the Mail & Guardian sets out a compelling outline of the challenges facing African higher education today. In combination, these challenges, which we have summarised below, provide the rationale for the recent summit.
- “Unprecedented growth” – Enrolment in African higher education institutions has climbed sharply over the last 15 years, growing approximately 170% from 3.53 million students in 1999 (2.25 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 1.28 million in North Africa) to 9.54 million in 2012 (6.34 million in sub-Saharan and 3.2 million in North Africa). The system is now under considerable strain to accommodate this growth and to keep pace with future demand.
- Limited research capacity – The authors note that, “As a whole, Africa spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research.” They see this as a major challenge to the continent’s development, particularly given the wide-ranging social and economic impacts of advanced research.
- Access to faculty – African institutions have struggled to recruit and retain faculty, due in part to funding limitations but also to the availability of qualified candidates for faculty positions. This bears on the capacity of African institutions but also on their ability to undertake scholarly research and to expand postgraduate education. In short, African institutions face a cyclical challenge whereby they have a limited pool of prospective faculty members but also a limited capacity to produce PhD-qualified faculty themselves.
- Keeping pace with demand – “A significant increase in student enrolment in African universities in order to absorb the increasing demand for higher education is fuelled by the massification of primary and secondary education,” say the authors. “Private higher education, which accounted for 22% of higher education students on the continent in 2006, is growing faster in many African countries, due in part to major policy reforms [and deregulation] carried out by governments.”
- The employability challenge – For the most part, increased postsecondary enrolment in Africa has not translated into a corresponding improvement in graduate employability. This is due in part to a disconnect between the number of graduates (and their qualifications) and the needs of employers.
- The funding challenge – African higher education needs more money. “There is need for increased commitment on the part of governments and the private sector to invest in higher education, science and technology, research and innovation.” And funding, quite naturally, was a core issue under consideration in Senegal. Dr Patrick Awuah is the founder of Ashesi University of Ghana and he commented during the summit, “Africa is spending a billion dollars on African higher education. We need to be spending $50 billion to close the gap.”
Building an action plan
The African Higher Education Summit was not a self-contained event over a few days in Senegal. Rather, it was the culmination of a longer process of research, planning, and discussion leading up to the summit deliberations. The summit’s findings, therefore, draw some of their force and credibility from this extended process – “years of country policy dialogues, commissioned papers, interactions and consultations” – particularly in the form of the resulting draft declaration and action plan.
A TrustAfrica news release highlights the diversity and divergent contexts and practices of the more than 1,600 higher education institutions operating in Africa today. It concludes, “It is therefore critical to:
- Develop a high quality, massive, vibrant, diverse, differentiated, innovative, autonomous and socially responsible higher education sector that will be a driving force [in achieving the continent’s long-term development goals].
- Produce the human capital required for the continent’s inclusive and sustainable development, democratic citizenship, and repositioning as a major global actor.”
The summit’s action plan is also clearly aligned with the broader Agenda 2063 initiative of the African Union. Both in its scope and in its stated ambitions for African education, the higher education action plan relates strongly to these long-term development goals for the continent.
Key elements of the plan
The higher education action plan aims first and foremost to significantly increase participation among college-aged students in Africa. As we noted earlier, it calls for an enrolment ratio of 50% for Africa, up from 8% for sub-Saharan Africa today (and 26% for Arab States on the continent and otherwise).
The declaration notes as well the importance of gender balance and calls for gender parity in enrolment, and also among academic and administrative staff, within the next decade.
More to the point, the action plan calls for coordinated investments in academic staff, infrastructure, and facilities in order to accomplish this dramatic increase in tertiary participation, and it anticipates that these funds will be contributed “by the state, private sector, and society at large.”
From the point of view of national governments, this means a concerted effort to increase the percentage of GDP allocated to education. At an institutional level, this means additional steps to diversity and expand revenue streams.
Beyond that, the plan anticipates that regional development interests and the private sector will expand their respective investments in higher education and research.
Further reporting from University World News provides some additional background on other elements of the plan, including increased spending on research. The action plan targets an increase in research spending to 1% of GDP within five years – that is, roughly a doubling of current research expenditures within that time – and to a minimum of 5% of GDP by 2063.
- Centres of excellence: “The declaration calls for action to develop 200 universities that constitute hubs of excellence in terms of knowledge, citizenship and relevance to key African development needs by 2063. ‘Every African country shall create one hub of excellence to every three million population.’”
- Engage the diaspora: The action plan aims to mobilise the diaspora of African scholars through the so-called “10/10” programme. The programme will sponsor 1,000 scholars per year from the diaspora (for the next 10 years) to visit African universities and colleges “for collaboration in research, curriculum development, and graduate student teaching and mentoring.”
- Better graduate outcomes: The declaration calls for both curriculum reform and closer links between institutions and industry in order to drive improved employability for graduates and to reduce gaps between graduate qualifications and labour market requirements.
The big question
What now? Will the action plan join the ranks of unattended government and NGO reports in Africa or will it provide a blueprint for real change and expansion of higher education?
That the summit was attended by government leaders and ministers, and that they have in turn committed to taking the plan forward with their respective governments, is a promising aspect to say the least. Speaking at the summit, and quoted in University World News, Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, said, “What is clear is that Africa has the political will to carry this summit process forward. I want to assure you that together with my colleagues we will ensure that the core recommendations will be taken up by our governments.”
Much depends now on that political will. Africa is growing and developing and it will continue to command a larger place on the global stage. Through the action plan of the African Higher Education Summit it may have a new chance, and the best opportunity in some time, to ensure that its higher education institutions can contribute fully to the realisation of the continent’s considerable promise.