Author: Salah Khaled
Site of publication: Oxford HR
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: June 2021
Higher education is one of the key sectors that could contribute to economic growth and development in the increasingly global society, key to the comprehensive sustainable development of Africa. In line with this vision, various governments and non-governmental institutions have recently initiated several policies and models in an attempt to build quality higher education to develop Africa’s human capital, in order to positively respond to the global challenges. Despite these efforts, an observable gap still exists between higher education and the socio-economic development of Africa. With 48 countries and a population of over 1 billion, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is one of the largest regions in the world, with a current gross tertiary education enrollment ratio of a meager 9.4%, well below the global average of 38%. Numbers of girls are more concerning, as they could excel at school but are then are pulled out to marry or do home chores. The sector is plagued by huge capacity deficits and challenges that threaten its survival, sustainability and contribution to the socio-economic development of the continent. While recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has put the education sector in general and higher education in particular in difficulty, we must recognize that the pandemic has helped unveil the problems experienced by students, professors and faculty alike, which in reality existed before the onset of the crisis. This therefore has pushed many to extend the reflection beyond the crisis caused by the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences.
Lack of investment for decades by governments has meant that the higher education institutions of Africa are currently not capable of responding to the immediate skills needs or supporting sustained productivity-led growth in the medium term. Moreover, low salaries of faculty, academic disruptions due to strikes, lack of research funding and laboratories or IT equipment, as well as limited autonomy, have been discouraging factors for qualified professors, or students, to stay in African universities.
Higher education is also essential to produce the teachers of tomorrow. Just as teachers are the central pillar of any education system, quality teachers produce quality education, a pre-requisite for a vibrant higher education. To produce quality teachers with the needed competencies and skills, there is need for a strong and quality higher education. An endless vicious circle in most countries, exacerbating the current pattern of skills production in Africa that do not match labor market demand or development needs, with choked public sector recruitment and a private sector struggling to find competent candidates. The recent trend in African higher education is the low percentage of graduates in areas of engineering, technology, mathematics, agriculture, health and science. Currently, most African countries face shortages of human resources and capacity within these disciplines, often depending on expat expertise for basic development projects. Despite all efforts, women are increasingly underrepresented in higher education, in particular in the science and technology fields. While we come across more and more great success stories of highly educated women increasingly accessing corporate or public positions, women are generally contributing to the informal economy, small scale businesses. How much they could develop their businesses, and Sub-Saharan Africa, if they had access to secondary and tertiary education?
Furthermore, the humanitarian crises in the continent have had a toll on its youth. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 percent (over 18 million) of the world’s refugees. This number has soared over the years, partly due to the ongoing crises in the Central Africa Republic, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan and Burundi to name a few. Millions of these refugees and IDPs were students, who are now deprived of any access to higher education, with large numbers of them engaging in negative coping mechanisms such as drug consumption, criminality, terrorism, and associating with non-state armed groups.
Examples include, the Lake Chad basin youth who have no opportunities to continue their education and have no alternative other than joining Boko Haram, or Cameroon Anglophone region students deprived since 2016 from completing their secondary education, with no chance to ascend to university, with no alternative but to engage with non-state armed groups and other forms of juvenile delinquency and criminality. During a recent visit to Lake Chad Basin islands in Chad, on one of the islands a group of youths were sitting idle under a well shading Acacia tree. “We have no opportunities as we have no access to schools, universities or internet or even electricity in this region” they stated with sorrow.
Moreover, low salaries of faculty, academic disruptions due to strikes, lack of research funding and laboratories or IT equipment, as well as limited autonomy, have been discouraging factors for qualified professors, or students, to stay in African universities
The situation described above, raises the question of how access and quality of higher education on the continent could be improved to make the needed contribution to the comprehensive development of Africa. Education has a powerful role to play in long-term prevention of violent extremism by empowering learners, equipping them with the right skills and competencies, and increasing employment opportunities. While graduates of many African higher educational institutions go unemployed, substantial shortages of skilled labor persist. The challenge is to improve the relevance of education, and to increase both the quantity and the quality of graduates through investments in laboratories and human resources for these disciplines, improve the link with employers to raise relevance and foster strong international collaboration to raise quality, with ITC and connectivity as the main driver. Higher education can be shaped as a public good and as a driver of social and economic growth. Values such as respect, empathy, equality, and solidarity should be at the core of future higher education institutions and their missions.
There is the need to promote innovation in the entire education and skills development ecosystems, taking advantage of the digital revolution, in order to widen access, increase its impact and also ensure that disadvantaged groups are not left out. The leapfrog transition to the numeric and virtual world offered to us by the pandemic should be capitalized on through ICT development for teaching, learning and research. It will also be instrumental in making African scholarly works available to the wider audience in and outside Africa, facilitating graduate fellowships and small grants for PhD support, linking universities to the productive sectors of the economy, and giving support to African higher education institutions to assist their host countries in achieving the sustainable development goals through policies. The concept of inclusive education need not be left out, promoting it in action and not just in theory.
The challenge is to improve the relevance of education, and to increase both the quantity and the quality of graduates through investments in laboratories and human resources for these disciplines, improve the link with employers to raise relevance and foster strong international collaboration to raise quality, with ITC and connectivity as the main driver. Higher education can be shaped as a public good and as a driver of social and economic growth. Values such as respect, empathy, equality, and solidarity should be at the core of future higher education institutions and their missions
There is dire need to review continent wide higher education strategies and policies in order to improve equitable access to quality higher education and enhance mobility and accountability. In a more globalized village, innovative initiatives are needed at regional and national levels, working in close cooperation with governments, private sector, donors, and stakeholders, to address quality enhancement, internationalization and digital education. The Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications adopted in 2019 was to facilitate international academic mobility and promote the right of individuals to have their higher education qualifications evaluated through fair, transparent and non-discriminatory manners. Lack of commitment and funding by many countries still hinders the great potential it offers.
Finally, the roadmap for SDG4, the Education 2030 Framework for Action (FFA), has two central policy pillars which focus on monitoring and improving learning outcomes and those who are excluded. The FFA calls for progress regarding existing international agreements in favor of higher education and recognizes that a well-established and well-regulated tertiary education system can improve access, equity, quality and relevance. It can also reduce the dissonance between what is taught and what needs to be learned to ensure sustainable development and take advantage of technology, open educational resources and distance education. Well-informed higher education systems can be strengthened based on strong normative instruments and institutions with a focus on access for all, linking data on higher education with job markets.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly offered a unique opportunity to conclude that digital distance education is increasingly proving its relevance to potentially unlock education opportunities and potential for Africa’s youth, including those in fragile or remote deprived rural settings, by reducing the costs of being physically at school, guaranteeing access to quality relevant modern content, and offering opportunities for collaboration especially in terms of sharing learning Open Education Resources. This collaboration is timely in Africa, especially between learnings institutions in fragile settings and those in well-resourced settings.
With all its wealth in terms of natural resources and human capital, we have no other choice but to strengthen higher education to give the African youths’ potential an opportunity, an alternative.
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