Impossible dream for African students

Radical solutions are being sought for the crisis in African universities, including new sources of funding to supplement government efforts.

Representatives of sub-Saharan African countries, who met recently in Ghana, said state funding no longer responds to Africa’s needs to train professionals, especially in science and technical subjects.

The Association of African Universities (AUA) believes that the pressure to admit more students to elite universities seriously affects the qualities of their degrees and research.

“While the elite African universities are facing a lack of resources, they’re also being asked to recruit more students and produce graduates for immediate employment,” says Professor Akilapka Sawyer, the AUA’s secretary-general.

Cash-stricken African universities depend on taxpayers’ money, which is hardly enough to meet rising operating costs.

Only 3,5% of young people attend sub-Saharan Africa’s higher institutions of learning. “This low rate is not explained by a dearth of candidates,” says Elizabeth Ohene, the Ghanaian Minister of Higher Education.

“Linguistic or geographical barriers are no longer an issue. The reality today is that higher education is facing an unprecedented crisis. We need radical solutions to be devised by African leaders,” says Hamidou Boukary of the Association for Educational Development in Africa (ADEA).

Bruce Fredriksen, a World Bank adviser for education affairs, says Africa’s education system is in crisis because it was created to serve only a small elite and not to churn out graduates.

As a result, Africa’s funding sources for human resource training have now dried up, he says.

“This crisis comes at a time when the economies which have to support these institutions are facing an unprecedented recession,” Fredriksen says.

“This demands that certain aspects of university life must revert to the private sector for survival,” he says.

To keep their heads above the water, African universities are urged to ‘sell’ income-generating services, or to place students in companies that will pay for their labour.

Rwanda’s Institute of Science and Technology, which was built after the 1994 genocide, is now a success story. Forty-five percent of its budget is raised by students working mostly for electric and water companies.

This year, the institute raked in three million US dollars. “We use this money to buy computers, chalk, and to fund courses,” says Silas Lwakakamba, the institute’s director. “We are not completely independent, but neither are we completely dependent on the government.”

“Our students interact with the community and offer their skills, often on maintaining machines and improving living conditions,” he explains.

The World Bank has suggested that while basic education will remain an important project, its major focus will be to stem the decay in higher education.

“Countries should make higher education loans from the bank a priority, since their independence from the rest of the world depends on it,” Fredriksen says. He suggests that countries include higher education development in their strategic plan to fight poverty so that the sector can benefit from investment.

The World Bank, which grants $400-million annually for education, half of which goes to basic education, in 45 sub-Saharan countries, says it is ready to consider increasing its contribution to $500-million a year. But, the World Bank says it has not yet received sufficient proposals for higher education projects to warrant such an increment.

Within the framework for reform, a number of African countries are considering providing loans for students, but there have been problems with repayment, the AUA acknowledges. Only South Africa has succeeded in creating an effective payback system. But, along with the creation of such loans, scholarships are often abolished, registration fees are increased, and student cafeteria prices are raised.

“We’re seeking solutions which can be adapted to the realities of each country based on local socioeconomic conditions,” explains Boukary.

“We need to create a favourable climate for change. But we also need to have the political will to do it,” he adds. - IPS

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