The African Higher Education Summit : Revitalizing higher education for Africa’s future

A three-day continental summit on higher education is taking place in the Senegalese capital, Dakar from 10 – 12 March, 2015. This summit, which is being organized under the guidance of Trust Africa, a Pan-African Organization will seek to build a movement of like-minded institutions to transform the African higher education sector. Eleven other partners involved in the organization and management of the summit include the African Union Commission, the Association of African Universities, CODESRIA – Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, the UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, the African Development Bank, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the MasterCard Foundation, the World Bank and ADEA. The government of Senegal is hosting the summit.

According to the organizers of this summit, this high-level meeting is expected to 

  1. Build a constituency for transformation and investment in Africa’s higher education ; 
  2. Create a shared vision for the future of African higher education ; 
  3. Harness and highlight exemplary efforts and initiatives in African higher education ; 
  4. Harness disparate efforts and interventions in African higher education ; and 
  5. Spur and sustain innovation in African higher education.

The summit will welcome views from a cross section of Africa’s populations. About 500 participants will take part in the summit and these will include policy makers, business leaders, scholars, civil society leaders and other stakeholders who recognize the centrality of higher education to national development, particularly in regard to social and economic transformation. The summit organizers realize how higher education in Africa has become the primary driving force behind improved standards of living, economic development and for forging national cohesion. This summit will, therefore, present a unique platform for stakeholders to determine the way forward collectively, while recognizing national issues, preserving national identities and highlighting the need for regional integration for a better future for Africa.

The summit is expected to delve into matters related to governance in Africa’s higher education sector. The participants are also expected to discuss issues of innovation and harmonization of policies across the continent with an eye toward lessons learned from processes in other parts of the world. Additional topics will include the remarkable rise in the number of African higher education institutions due in part to increased demand resulting from investments in primary and secondary education by African governments, and increased private investment resulting from policies aimed at reducing the role of the state in higher education. Mrs. Aicha Bah Diallo, former Minister of Education in the Republic of Guinea and current President of Trust Africa has briefly highlighted these issues in a conversation she had with this News Journal (see The Interview).

According to Dr. Tendai Murisa, Director of Trust Africa, one of the advocacy points of this summit will be to make sure that African higher education gets to the top of the African Union’s agenda that would ensure that national governments also reprioritize their actions in this subsector.

The summit is expected to trigger action that will go way beyond the two days of deliberations.

Since independence in the 1960s, governments, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as development partner institutions have placed greater emphasis on primary and secondary education in country development programs. Tertiary education did not receive its due importance and tended to be neglected, even though many would have recognized that this was an added means to improve economic growth and mitigate poverty.

However, the past four decades have seen access to tertiary education expand at an unprecedented rate, with enrollment in higher education growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than any other region. Women have been the first to benefit in most parts of the world. UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) figures indicate that while there were fewer than 200,000 tertiary students enrolled in the Africa region in 1970, this number soared to over 4.5 million in 2008 – a more than 20-fold increase. In effect, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) for tertiary education grew at an average rate of 8.6% for each year between 1970 and 2008 – compared to a global average of 4.6% over the same period. This rate exceeded the population growth of the relevant age group across the region.

Contrary to global trends, women remain disadvantaged in terms of access to tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa. Recent figures from the UIS state that the tertiary GER in sub-Saharan Africa for women is 4.8%, compared to 7.3% for men.

Nevertheless, the region made significant progress towards gender parity in the 1990s. Women in sub-Saharan Africa continue to face significant barriers to tertiary education in countries with the lowest levels of national wealth. UIS figures also show that those countries with a GDP per capita of less than US$1,000 have fairly low gender parity indexes (GPIs), ranging from 0.31 to 0.51. One must, therefore, consider gender equality in light of the overall level of participation in tertiary education. Countries must address gender inequalities as they seek to broaden access to higher education for all students, regardless of their sex.

Tertiary systems in sub-Saharan Africa lack the necessary ingredients to absorb the growing demand that has resulted from broader access to secondary education.

For instance, in 1999, the region’s GER for the upper secondary level was 19%, which was nearly five times as high as the ratio for tertiary education (4%). In 2008, the tertiary GER reached 6%, compared to 27% for upper secondary education. Globally, the GER for upper secondary education is just twice that of the tertiary level. The large gaps between the two ratios – GERs for upper secondary and tertiary – indicate that there will be many students completing upper secondary education who are eligible for higher education but do not have access to it. At the policy level, one can expect further pressure to expand the tertiary school system in order to meet the rising demand.

There are also several resource constraints, with many countries finding it extremely difficult to secure adequate funding for tertiary education.

Many of these countries have very limited options to acquire additional resources. Relative to lower levels of schooling, public spending on higher education is disproportionately high in many sub-Saharan African countries. For example, according to UIS, Burkina Faso’s public expenditure per secondary student is up to 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, while government spending for a tertiary student is 10 times as high, at 307% of GDP per capita. This suggests that public resources are highly concentrated in relatively few students.

There are still a large number of sub-Saharan African students who pursue tertiary education abroad.

UIS figures for 2008 reveal that about 223,000 students from sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in higher education institutions outside of their home countries. They represented 7.5% of the total number of mobile students (3.0 million) around the world. Moreover, the number of mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa represented 4.9% of students enrolled in domestic tertiary institutions in their home countries, which was almost three times greater than the global average (1.9%).

Internationally mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa also have diverse destinations. About one-quarter of such students studied in another country within the same region (55,000 out of 223,200) in 2008. South Africa alone hosted 21% of mobile students from countries within the region. Despite this trend, about two-thirds or 65.1% of mobile students from the region studied in North America and Western Europe.

This summit must address these as well as other issues that have been pending over the past decades in higher education in Africa. These will also include the issues bordering on quality as an area essential for the revitalization of higher learning in the region. There is also the question of strengthening of the capacity of higher education institutions to meet the many tertiary educational needs of African countries. The summit must come out with an agreed format to promote innovative forms of collaboration. It must also ensure that the quality of higher education is systematically improved to be consistent with standard, agreed benchmarks of excellence that will facilitate mobility of graduates and academics across the continent.