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Africa: Higher Education Must Be Higher Priority

AfricaFocus Bulletin
March 17, 2015 (150317)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"In 2011, the average gross rate of tertiary education enrolment in Africa was 8% against a world average of 27%. Even with those low figures, demand for university admission continues to exceed capacity, and public universities are under increasing pressure to admit more students than current staff and infrastructure would allow. ... [even so] In most African countries, the increase in tertiary enrolment has not translated into a comparable improvement in employment opportunities. ... Indeed, there are growing complaints by employers that graduates are poorly prepared for the workplace." - Concept paper for African Higher Education Summit

The African Higher Education Summit, held in Dakar on March 10-12, clearly marks a new level of consensus on the need to give much higher priority to the higher education sector, and in particular its significance for economic development. The range of participants was impressive, both from the higher education sector itself and from government, philanthropic and multilateral agencies. The speeches and conference documents outline a wide-ranging and ambitious agenda.

Yet at least to non-specialist readers, such as your editor, there seems to be no comparable consensus on how the multiple stakeholders will find the resources to implement such an ambitious agenda. Nor is it clear which among them will take the lead in responding to the call for new levels of quality as well as continued quantitative expansion in higher education. Without answers to these questions, it is hard to discern whether higher education will in practice get the higher priority that the Summit called for.

[Note: Many AfricaFocus readers have expertise on this subject from first-hand experience. If you are among them and there are important sources with insight on this that you consider particularly helpful for the non-specialist, please send links to and they can be added to the web version of this Bulletin.]

Additional relevant resources, including documents prepared for the Summit and other related studies, are available at

A draft declaration and action plan is available at

Direct links to a few selected other documents include the following:

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, "African Higher Education Summit: Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa's Future." Summit Framing Paper, March 2015

"African Higher Education Summit - insight into the challenges & way forward" E-book produced by Trust Africa and Mail & Guardian Africa, 11 Mar 2015

Association for the Development of Education in Africa, "Stimulating Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Development in Africa: An Urgent Post-2015 Agenda," Policy Brief, September 2014

"Recommendations for Reinvigorating the Humanities in Africa," submitted by The Forum on the Humanities in Africa of the African Humanities Program, University of South Africa, June 7, 2014

"African Research Universities Alliance launched," University World News, Mar 10, 2015

Universities included in the initial launch include Lagos, Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo in Nigeria, the University of Ghana, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the National University of Rwanda, Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, and in South Africa the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, KwaZulu-Natal and Rhodes.


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Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa's Future

Continental Summit

March 10-12, 2015, Dakar, Senegal

Concept Paper


Africa has witnessed tremendous growth in its higher education and research sphere over the last few decades. This is to a large extent a manifestation of the recognition by African stakeholders, including political leaders of the value of higher education in achieving their visions of prosperity, peace and integration. International agencies, once sceptical about the value of university education in Africa's social economic development, are now among the chief advocates of revitalisation of higher education in Africa.

Increasing enrolment rates have meant that educational quality has often suffered, thus further compromising the relevance and excellence of the sector. The rising number of government and private agencies involved in higher education has also brought some critical issues to the fore. A multiplicity of educational initiatives will require that the higher education and research community work together to ensure coherence and to identify synergies that will optimise the use of resources.

However, the renewed focus on the importance of higher education to the continent's development presents an opportunity to work together towards a common vision -- ensuring that efforts to create a robust African higher education and research space are both relevant and responsive. This goal is integral to the African Union (AU) development agenda, whose theme is the "Africa We Want in 2063." Indeed, strategic alliances must be established across social and economic sectors in order to develop the human capacity needed to achieve this new future. It is widely recognized that higher education is critical to promoting faster technological growth, value addition to raw materials and natural resources, improving countries' ability to maximise economic output, and building human capabilities. Indeed, consensus is emerging among African governments, the business community, scholars and pan-African development agencies that higher education can facilitate national development and regional integration -- and that it has an important role in fostering citizenship and building democratic societies.

African institutions such as the Association of African Universities, CODESRIA (the Council for the Development of Social Science in Africa), the African Academy of Sciences and ADEA (the Association for the Development of Education in Africa) are some of the critical actors advocating for the revitalisation of the African higher education sector. Similarly, a number of African countries and sub-regional bodies such as the Inter-University Council of Eastern Africa, the Southern Africa Universities Association, the Arab Association of Universities, and CAMES (Conseil africain et malgache pour l'enseignement supérieur) have been organising higher education programmes with the aim of transforming the sector.

Initiatives at the continental level include the AU Plan of Action for the second decade of education for Africa (2006-2015), which calls for revitalisation of higher education and research and emphasizes enhanced intra-African collaboration and more robust linkages between higher education and research. As indicated above, the AU Africa Agenda 2063 identified human capacity development as key to achieving the collective vision of peace, integration, prosperity and improved standing in the global economy. To be sure, higher education has also been part of regional integration processes. The African Union Commission (AUC) framework for harmonization aims to foster academic integration and to bridge the gap between disparate educational systems and is part of an effort to create a distinct, globally competitive African higher education space. The revised Arusha Convention calls for a similar effort regarding the recognition of academic qualifications, and the Nyerere Programme is providing an excellent mechanism for strengthening institutional cooperation by promoting portability of degrees across Africa. Finally, the Harmonisation and Tuning Project aims to enhance comparability of academic qualifications across the continent and equivalencies across regions.

The harmonization of higher education incorporates a strong focus on establishing effective accreditation and quality assurance mechanisms. An African Quality Rating Mechanism is being established by the AUC to encourage higher education institutions to voluntarily assess their performance against a set of criteria. Meanwhile, the AUC has launched the process of establishing an African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Framework. Another aspect of these efforts is to assure the effective networking of quality assurance and accreditation agencies.

The promotion of regional collaboration and intra-African cooperation in quality assurance is critical to developing comparable methodologies and to strengthening the space of higher education in Africa. Importantly, there is a strong need to mobilise stakeholders in the sector around these initiatives to ensure their ownership and subsequent success.

Challenges in African Higher Education

The last decades have seen a significant increase in student enrolment in African universities in order to absorb the increasing demand for higher education fuelled by the massification of primary and secondary education. 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 carried out by governments. The deregulation of the higher education sector has resulted in contradictory outcomes. While the expansion has led to increased access, there is a concern that enrolment growth under conditions of limited resources has contributed to lower quality. Moreover, despite high increases in tertiary education enrolment, there is still unmet demand. In 2011, the average gross rate of tertiary education enrolment in Africa was 8% against a world average of 27%. Even with those low figures, demand for university admission continues to exceed capacity, and public universities are under increasing pressure to admit more students than current staff and infrastructure would allow.

Most institutions have been unable to recruit additional academic staff to cope with the increased enrolment, either because of shortage of funds or unavailability of qualified candidates. The staff shortages in many African universities have been compounded by the fact that the average age of faculty members is relatively high. Staff shortages have been also exacerbated by the brain drain. There is a difficulty in recruiting and retaining faculty with senior academic qualifications and research experience. Reasons for this include limited postgraduate opportunities, low graduation rates and discouraging conditions of service. Many higher education institutions in Africa do not yet have adequate research capabilities and their contributions have been found to be less relevant to development needs. The slow expansion of postgraduate education has seriously constrained innovation as most research skills are commonly acquired during master's and doctoral study. The lack of academic staff with PhDs has adversely affected the quality and depth of the instruction provided to undergraduate students -- and the ability to provide graduate students with adequate supervision.

As a whole, Africa spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, a level of funding that poses a major challenge to the continent's development. Its lack of capacity regarding research and knowledge creation has meant further marginalization. Africa has the world's lowest ratio of researchers per million inhabitants and an average of only 35 scientists and engineers per one million inhabitants. Its annual share of research publications is less than 1.5%. 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. Various options need to be explored for developing clear funding mechanisms and policies.

In most African countries, the increase in tertiary enrolment has not translated into a comparable improvement in employment opportunities. This is partly due to the mismatch between the number and type of graduates and the needs of the labour market. Indeed, there are growing complaints by employers that graduates are poorly prepared for the workplace. Thus there is a triple crisis of graduate unemployment, underemployment and unemployability. Several studies point to a need to match up employer requirements and the curriculum developed by higher education institutions.

A number of "centres of excellence" are being established in Africa, notably the AU's Pan- African University (PAU), which promotes cooperation among African countries in targeted areas within specialised regional centres to enhance quality, research, and postgraduate education. A concrete initiative that seeks to nurture quality and exemplify excellence, the PAU is globally competitive and relevant to Africa's need and aspirations. However, even with initiatives like this, the scale of change is inadequate if the African higher education sector is to compete with those in other parts of the world. Many processes, moreover, have not been subjected to continental dialogues involving the majority of stakeholders in the sector. Finally, the lack of coordination among interventions by African governments, private actors and networks, and international development partners is causing fragmentation and reducing impact.

There is therefore an urgent need for coordinated interventions of key stakeholders involving African governments, regional economic communities, the private sector, scholars, pan-African development agencies, research and university networks, and international development partners. Across the continent, and at several national higher education policy fora, stakeholders have been demanding a platform for an Africa-wide dialogue to reposition the higher education sector to serve the needs of the continent and its people.

This context provides the impetus for the continental summit on the theme of "Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa's Future," which will be held on March 10--12, 2015 in Dakar, Senegal.

Summit Partners

The summit is being organized by several key pan-African organizations: TrustAfrica, African Union Commission (AUC), Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), United Nations Africa Institute for Development and Economic Planning (IDEP), Association of African Universities (AAU), and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The government of Senegal will serve as the host of the summit. The National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa has recently joined the summit consortium. The summit is being held in partnership with international development agencies and foundations that have been active in the field of higher education in Africa, namely: the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY), MasterCard Foundation, and the World Bank.

Summit Goal and Objectives

The main aim of the summit is to create a continental multistakeholders' platform to identify strategies for transforming the African higher education sector. Objectives include to:

  • Build a constituency for transformation and investment in Africa's higher education;
  • Create a shared vision for the future of African higher education;
  • Harness and highlight exemplary efforts (best practice) and initiatives in African higher education;
  • Harness disparate efforts and interventions in African higher education;
  • Spur and sustain innovation in African higher education;
  • Create an African higher education space/community as part of the continent's integration efforts; and
  • Ensure coordination and complementarities of the various initiatives, both by African actors and international development organizations, to reposition the sector.

Participants and Structure

We envisage 500 participants at the summit drawn from the following stakeholders:

  • Academics and administrators of higher education institutions
  • Employers -- public and private
  • Governments (this includes some Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers of Education, Science and Technology, and Finance)
  • Students associations -- such as the All Africa Students Union (AASU)
  • Academic and non-academic unions
  • Donors -- foundations, bilateral and multilateral agencies
  • Families and citizens
  • Business leaders

The summit will be highly interactive, allowing exchange of experiences and views among participants. It will consist of plenary and parallel sessions over three consecutive days.

Expected Outcomes

The continental summit seeks to institutionalize continental dialogue and build a movement of like-minded institutions and individuals for the transformation of the African higher education sector. Specifically, we expect to accomplish the following outcomes:

  • A coalition/movement of continental and international multistakeholders is established to partner to host the summit and take its recommendations forward;
  • Outputs of the working groups -- research papers/ monographs, policy papers, reports of workshops -- are disseminated and available online as from September 2014;
  • Outcomes of the summit influence national and regional policy to transform higher education sector;
  • Civil society organizations participating in higher education policy processes at national and continental levels lead to better policy and effective implementation;
  • Gaps are bridged between governments, universities' administrators and academic and non-academic unions on the continent;
  • Gaps are bridged between African higher education institutions and the private sector;
  • Greater coordination of disparate initiatives to transform the African higher education sector takes place;
  • A shared vision about the future direction of higher education in Africa is developed;
  • A comprehensive inventory of previous and current interventions -- players, goals and core activities, plus immediate and wider impact is provided;
  • An agenda for the future of partnerships between Africans and international development partners is agreed to;
  • An agenda for African national and regional governments is agreed to;
  • A framework for increased investment in the higher education sector is established;
  • Commitments to research, science and technology are made;
  • Principles guiding future actions to transform African higher education are agreed to;
  • New and improved relationships with key stakeholders that facilitate change and future action, especially among governments, administrators of higher education institutions, and academic and non-academic unions are strengthened; and
  • African higher education improves its position in the global system.

Contact: Dr. Omano Edigheji, Director of the Summit, TrustAfrica E-mail: or

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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