Meeting the academic needs of a booming continent

As Africa’s economies continue to grow at an unprecedented rate— the World Bank has estimated 5.2 percent across the continent in 2014— the demand for top local talent across sectors is also on the rise.  African universities, however, are largely struggling to churn out employable graduates at a rate fast enough to meet demand.

It’s a challenge recently articulated by many African leaders, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union.  “Although the growth experienced by the continent over the last decade marks an important turning point, it can only be sustained if we also transform our economies and societies, and create employment,” she said upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa earlier this year. “African universities must ensure that their academic staff conscientise the future generations to a new mindset that does not accept second best, but a belief that they have the tenacity and ideas to compete with the best in the world.”  That, she said, includes a focus on expanding quality education in technology, innovation, and research.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of universities across the continent.  Indeed, higher education in Africa has never been more accessible to so many.  This growth, however, has brought about new challenges.  Professors, for example, often spend more time teaching undergraduates rather than on researching and collaborating with post-graduate students.  Furthermore, African universities are geographically isolated, resulting in limited interaction across the continent between faculty, students and researchers.

“Our efforts to build individual and networks of research universities must also deliberately encourage collaboration amongst African universities, researchers, academics and scientists,” said Dlamini-Zuma in another speech earlier this year at the University of Pretoria.  “We often cooperate with researchers, academics, scientists, and institutions from overseas, and yet to a lesser extent with scientists from the African continent.” 

Though most educators agree more science education is important to Africa’s development, some warn against undervaluing the relevance of humanities.  “Science has been neglected for a long time so it is a good thing to champion, but it cannot solve all our problems,” Frederick Kayanja, vice-chancellor of Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda, told University World News.  “Humanities are important too.”

The debate over the future of higher education in Africa will be front and center next March when nearly 500 experts from the education, private and public sectors convene in Dakar, Senegal for the African Higher Education Summit.  The summit is a collaborative effort between the pan-African policy organization Trust Africa and ten partners— including the Government of Senegal, the African Union Commission, African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, and the Association of African Universities. With support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the Mastercard Foundation and others— the conference will help “institutionalize continental dialogue” around Africa’s higher education challenges. 

According to organizers, the aim of the summit is to meet the consensus “emerging among African governments, the business community, scholars and pan-African development agencies on the critical importance of the role of higher education can play in the building of democratic societies, fostering of citizenship, empowerment of citizens, and the facilitating of development and regional integration.” 

“We see dots that are not connected,” said Tendai Murisa, director of TrustAfrica, told University World News. “There are many disparate activities taking place. That’s why we came up with the idea of a continental summit that can link the dots and maybe create a new synergy.”

Their goal is for the event to be the largest gathering of leaders dedicated to higher education ever to take place on the continent.

“Our biggest asset today is human capital,” says Omotade Akin Akina, former program director of the Corporation’s higher education in Africa initiatives and a key voice in building the agenda for the conference.  “We’re changing the conversation about how Africans see their universities and how the world sees African universities.”

To learn more about the conference, visit Trust Africa.

For more resources on higher education in Africa, check out SciDevNet and University World News Africa Edition.