Africa’s Higher Ed – Development Connection

A new report explores the complex relationships between higher education and development in Africa, with a particular focus on economic and democratic development.

Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination published by Carnegie Corporation grantee The Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA), finds that higher education is now acknowledged as key to delivering the knowledge requirements for development. 

"Research has suggested a strong association between higher education participation rates and levels of development, and that high levels of education are essential for the design and production of new technologies, for a country's innovative capacity and for the development of civil society," the report says.

This has persuaded many countries – including rapidly developing nations such as China and India – to put knowledge and innovation policies, and higher education, at the core of their development strategies. “The ability of developing countries to absorb, use and modify technology developed mainly in high-income countries will drive more rapid transition to higher levels of development and standards of living.”

However, the report points out, the role of higher education in development in Africa has remained unresolved. Following independence from colonial rule, universities were expected to be key contributors to human resource needs.

During the 1970s the idea of 'development universities' emerged. It was argued that governments should steer universities towards a development role. But many governments had no coherent development model. "Steering became interference and universities became sites of contestation". Higher education "came to be seen as a 'luxury ancillary' - nice to have, but not necessary".

During this period the World Bank, especially, concluded that development in Africa should concentrate on primary education and expenditure on higher education declined dramatically: from $6,800 per student in 1980 to $1,200 in 2002, and later to just $981 in 33 low-income Sub-Saharan African countries, according to the World Bank. The report continues:

"Lack of investment in higher education delinked universities from development, led to development policies that had negative consequences for African nations, and caused the closure of institutions and areas of higher education that are critical to development."

During the 1990s and early 2000s some influential voices (including the World Bank) started calling for the revitalization of African universities and for linking higher education to development. Ahead of the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in 2009, a group of African education ministers called for improved financing of universities and a support fund to strengthen training and research in key areas. This movement has steadily gained ground.