Amplifying Higher Education in Africa: Damtew Teferra and the International Journal of African Higher Education

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As preparations for next year’s African Higher Education Summit continue to get underway, Carnegie Corporation spoke with Damtew Teferra, who founded the International Network for Higher Education in Africa at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, now based at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Teferra is also the editor-in-chief of the newly launched International Journal of African Higher Education. He spoke with us about the journal’s inspiration and the biggest challenges facing higher education leaders across the continent. 

What inspired you to create this journal?

I have been in this business of African higher education for over 15 years. I’ve studied the landscape and engaged with key players and networks, and published extensively.

One of the problems surrounding higher education in Africa is that conversations tend to be what I sometimes call, “African higher education 101,” and revolve around perfunctory talks about the same issues and challenges with limited depth. They don’t always rise up to the next level. And if they do, they happen to take place on an ad hoc basis where the dialogues remain inaccessible.

The launching of the journal is thus meant to raise the level of the conversation as well as ensure accessibility of the informed opinions and the dialogue at one central and prominent forum managed in the continent.  There is a lot of appetite, so hopefully the journal will fill that need.

Your opening article gives a snapshot of the landscape of African higher education. What are some of the biggest challenges the continent is facing?

The first edition of the journal really addresses most of the major issues facing higher education in Africa, with the exception of funding, which is a big issue that was recently addressed in a dedicated book. 

In recent years we’ve seen phenomenal expansion, in some cases a doubling or even quadrupling of the number of students in a short period of time.  Ethiopia is a great example.  It had just two public universities in early 2000; it now counts 35. Uganda is another one. A country with 10,000 students in the 1990s now enrolls 200,000. You can imagine what that means in terms of funding, infrastructure, and teaching capacity.  Such rapid expansion across the continent has had  serious quality implications, so that’s a big theme.

Graduate education is another critical issue we explore. Many in Africa's previous generation of academia are retiring, and at the moment only sporadic efforts are being made to nurture the next generation.

How is economic growth impacting the way higher education is conducted in Africa today?

Regardless of which statistics you read there is definitely economic growth, if not necessarily development.  Governments should, theoretically, have more revenue to spend, and that growth has contributed to the expansion of higher education. The question now is maintaining the level of financial commitment as competing demands on the national treasury are constantly mounting. While massive expansion has taken place in the region, the rate of enrollment still hovers around 6-7 percent—the lowest for the world. The challenge for Africa now stands in expanding access while maintaining quality. Steady economic growth is critical for maintaining the level of funding commitment.

As more and more leaders call for "practical" teaching at universities that will lead to employment, is there a danger that humanities will be overshadowed?

In some countries it’s more dramatic than in others.  To use Ethiopia again as an example: it has moved to change enrollment patterns to 70 percent in science and tech against 30 percent in humanities—at an instant.  Can you imagine what that means?  You need labs, equipment, academics, books, and infrastructure for that to happen.

The problem has been that in so many places there has not been enough preparation to handle that kind of dramatic shift. There is a lot of excitement, but many question the quality of the education on offer.  Political leaders are easily captivated by the idea without having a clear picture of what such changes mean.  Of course we need more engineers and scientists, but the leaders don't always have a full grasp of the costs and the stakes involved.

In the past you've said too much of the agenda on higher education in Africa has come from outside the continent. Is that changing?

As I mentioned earlier, the conversation has not only been ad hoc, but much of the dialog and discourse around African higher education has been external in nature.  In the past the World Bank, the development community and other external players, including the foundations, drove it.

The landscape of the conversation seems to have evolved and expanded. The number of relevant and concerned organizations and institutions in the region is growing. Some of us in the region have taken the challenge—and the privilege—of pushing that conversation through publications, dialog, communications and advocacy. Africa is becoming more assertive in what it does, and that means more players on the ground.

What are your hopes for the upcoming African Higher Education Summit in March?

It reminds me a lot of 2005, when the UN’s former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and various heads of state spoke out and helped leaders in higher education chart the way forward for African higher education.  It’s about putting the issue on the agenda, in the limelight, and acknowledging that it is paramount.

As in the MDGs, the post-2015 Agenda does not declare higher education  critical to development. Therefore, all concerned stakeholders need to push for a bigger space for higher education across the continent.  If anything the summit will help amplify the statement that Africa takes this matter seriously.