Reflecting on a year of partnership to boost higher education in East Africa

Significant change often seems hard to achieve in higher education – but, in the last year, Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) – a partnership of East African organizations and INASP – has had some real successes. Jon Harle reflects on the key elements of the partnership

Over the years there have been many initiatives that have aimed to strengthen research and teaching in African higher education (HE). I’ve been following these, and involved in some of them, over the last decade or so. Some have been very successful – producing important new scholarship and networks, equipping individual researchers and teachers with skills and confidence, and fostering stronger institutions – some less so. Many have nevertheless seemed to create islands of improved quality in particular departments or centres, but have struggled to achieve deeper and more systemic change, change that travels beyond a single part of an institution and has the potential to be scaled.

In a new paper, I reflect on some of the pitfalls that partnerships often face and reflect on some of the ingredients for successful partnership that we have seen in the first year of the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) partnership, which is fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills in undergraduates in East Africa.

Here are some key ingredients for success that I explore in the paper:

  1. The need is real and recognized – All partners, and by the staff and leadership of their wider institutions, as well as wider national-level conversations, identify the need to improve undergraduate education.
  2. It’s all in the partnership – The process of identifying the right partners, building the partnership and designing the project was taken seriously by all of us in the TESCEA project at the start and on an ongoing basis.
  3. The partnership has opened-up new thinking and relationships – Connecting different people and organizations through the partnership has generated new conversations and fresh ideas on all sides.
  4. Institutional leadership has been vital, and allowed each team to navigate the change in their own context – Identifying who should be involved and engaging with key decision makers in institutions helps to drive the initiative forward, and to inspire and encourage them in the process.
  5. Creating interest and engagement, and bringing in fresh perspectives – Providing a truly transformative learning experience for students needs new forms of partnership with employers, entrepreneurs, and with community-based organizations or groups.
  6. We haven’t always got things right – Recognizing challenges and areas of difficulty is important for learning.

Learning better

These are personal reflections from what I’ve been observing, but a more rigorous learning component is helping us to test our assumptions, and to track what is changing, how and why. That will help us know more about why we struggle when we do, and why we’re successful at driving change when we are. My colleague Femi Nzegwu has written elsewhere about how we’re seeking to develop an adaptive MEL process to support this and other work. In the coming months I hope we’ll be able to provide further insights, and a stronger evidence base, to understand the process of change.

While these are personal reflections, they are the result of many conversations with partners, and with my INASP colleagues, and I’m grateful to them for the opportunity to learn together, their tireless work, and for generously sharing their own observations and ideas.

Read the paper here.


Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) is helping young people in Tanzania and Uganda to use their skills and ideas to tackle social and economic problems. With partners in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, TESCEA supports universities, industries, communities and government to work together to create an improved learning experience for students – both women and men. This improved learning experience fosters the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and allows for practical learning beyond the classroom that improves a graduate’s employability.

The TESCEA partnership is led by INASP (UK), working with Mzumbe University (Tanzania), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), Gulu University (Uganda), Uganda Martyrs University (Uganda), Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (Kenya), LIWA Programme Trust (Kenya) and Ashoka Africa (Kenya).

TESCEA is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) as part of DFID’s SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Director of Programmes at INASP.

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