“Governing without data is like driving without a dashboard”. That was how Kofi Annan summed up the importance of higher education for Africa, at the first African Higher Education Summit in Dakar a couple of weeks ago. Governments need knowledge and information to govern effectively, he argued, and the places that produce that, in the form of research and skilled graduates, are universities. When the Africa Progress Panel wanted to investigate agriculture, and when the Ebola outbreak struck in West Africa, it was universities and research institutes outside the continent that people turned to for analysis and advice.
The Summit was billed as the first continental summit on higher education in Africa. Under the banner of ‘revitalising higher education for Africa’s future’ it aimed to develop a shared vision, mobilize new investment, highlight what has worked well, and spur innovation. The guest list was impressive: the chair of the African Union Commission, the President of Senegal, an array of vice chancellors, a smattering of ministers, officials and ambassadors, and a number from donors and capacity building organisations – like INASP – which support the sector. Some 500 delegates in total.
For anyone aware of the debates surrounding higher education on the continent there were some familiar discussions during the conference – the need for better financing, and the relative split between public and private sources, the need to balance wider access with improvements in quality, and the need to create a diverse system spanning research-intensive universities to specialized technical training institutes (or differentiation as it is known in the language of HE policy), and the need to ensure graduates are employable. This in the context of rapid growth – some familiar but still striking examples were quoted. Ethiopia’s Minister of Education noted that in 23 years the country had gone from just two to 97 universities and colleges. A conversation with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, revealed real enthusiasm and energy – but also the daunting scale of the task ahead of them.
There was also a resounding call for relevance –that for Africa to realize its potential, underpinning the sector had to be a commitment to ensure that what it researched, and the graduates it produced, were relevant to the needs of African societies and their development needs. In the words of Codesria’s Director, Ebrima Sall, this definition needs to move away from a narrow focus on serving a job market to a broader focus on development.
For INASP, Annan’s pithy comment about dashboards and governance is particularly interesting – our work supports access to research and the people that enable this, enables researchers to get their work published and more visible locally and internationally, and through our evidence-informed policy programme, makes the connections between research and those that need information for decision making in government and elsewhere. Higher education provides a critical pipeline – skilled researchers and skilled policymakers all depend on a functioning higher education system in some way.
What about the ‘how’?
But there was something missing from the summit for me, and that was sufficient opportunity for discussions about the ‘how’. As Kofi Annan rightly noted out, what works in Accra won’t necessarily work in Nairobi or Dakar – there can be no prescriptions. But while the challenges are no doubt huge, there are many examples of initiatives which have worked and could work to strengthen HE on the continent.
To take research and postgraduate education as an example, there is no shortage of initiatives. The University of Ghana has established a doctoral academy to reinvigorate its own PhD training, and to serve as something of a West African hub (something that Stellenbosch has already begun to do in South Africa). The African Union established the Pan African University as a continental network of training and research centres. The World Bank is funding a series of specialist centres across West Africa to develop academic capacity in critical fields and is preparing to develop a second phase in Eastern and Southern Africa. These build on regional initiatives such as the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Africa, the African Population Health Research Centre and many others. What are we learning from these approaches? What is working well, and how can we build on these?
Incentives are critical of course. As one speaker commented, if you don’t pay academics on time, that’s a major obstacle to driving up quality. But as Nico Cloete noted, incentives aren’t just about money – the bigger issue is how the available money is used.
There was a good discussion about the importance of a differentiated system. But the big question was how to make this happen – how many vice chancellors would decide not to try to become a highly ranked research university and instead opt for a mission oriented more towards high quality undergraduate teaching? These are policy questions – and may depend on governments who regulate HE systems to encourage or discourage institutions from following particular routes. As Prof Cliff Tagoe argued, a country first needs to define what it needs its HE system to do, and set this out so that institutions can respond.
Undoubtedly there will be a political dimension to this. The Summit had some high profile figures – ministers and government figures – and the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, pledged himself as a continental champion for advancing this agenda and the African Union Commission’s chair, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, pledged her organisation’s support. But whether the bold calls made in Dakar translate into change will depend on individual governments to take up the challenge – and provide the right combination of funding and policy to enable their skilled university leaders to take this agenda forward.
At the heart of Annan’s argument was that Africa’s potential won’t be realized unless we can develop the higher skills and knowledge that the continent needs. The big debates are important – that mark out the key issues we need to tackle, and can serve to mobilize energy and action around them. But we certainly won’t realize that potential if we don’t focus on the detail of ‘how’.
Jon Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research, Access & Availability
He tweets @jonharle
Further coverage of the event