Gender toolkits, virtual universities, clever funding give a new shine

Africa is going through a higher education boom: in 1991, the continent had only 2.7 million students but, according to the World Bank, by the end of 2015 projections are for between 18 and 20 million students.

To meet this demand Africa is now closing in on about 2 600 institutions of higher learning; some countries are expanding more rapidly than others. Ethiopia for example had two universities 23 years ago; today it has 33 public universities, four private ones and 59 colleges, bringing the total of higher education institutions to 96.  

But this boom is coming at a time when Africa needs a revitalisation in its higher education institutions. Most universities in Africa suffer from a lack of resources, promote elite selection, and perform poorly in knowledge production. 

Disconnect with private sector

The institutions are also affected by a disconnect with private sector employers, which contributes toward high unemployment rates after graduation. From a low base of under 10%, the continent needs a shift to increased participation, which respects diversity and that will not compromise on quality.

These issues were addressed at an African Higher Education Summit in Senegal, organised by the African philanthropic organisation TrustAfrica from March 10 to 12. The task is immense, but fortunately the conference also allowed some glimpses into the way forward.

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenge that institutions face is that of funding. Funding affects everything: the ability to hire and retain the best lecturers, buy new equipment, develop infrastructure and provide scholarships. 

According to Tade Aina, a highly regarded Pan-African authority on higher education in Africa and the executive director of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Carnegie Foundation has “the biggest and longest engagement with investment in higher education in Africa”. 

Its investments began with agricultural education in Kenya and public libraries in South Africa in the mid-1920s and continued through the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, marked by an emphasis on academic communities, libraries, and women in higher education.

Carnegie’s story

Carnegie was also one of several international foundations with a vested interest in supporting the continent’s higher education movement that created a 10-year Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. As this partnership drew to a close, it had invested approximately $500-million, allowing higher education institutions to step into the digital world and improve their capacity for research.

But it’s not all about the money

In an interview, Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, described how some of the greatest challenges facing higher education are “patterns in employment, specifically the mismatch between supply and demand”.

Students are graduating and unable to find work because they’ve been trained in the wrong sector, or not according to the requirements of a specific job profile.  A survey released last year by the Inter-University Council for East Africa found that between 51% and 63% of graduates were “half-baked”, “unfit for jobs” and “lacking job market skills”.  The worst records were in Uganda (63%) and Tanzania (61%).

De la Rey explained that one way of attempting to resolve this is to “bring universities and the private sector into dialogue”. 

The University of Pretoria is an institution that is doing just that through the creation of academic advisory boards for various subjects, such as economics and management, made up of private and/or public sector people external to the university.

In doing this “you get direct input from the most important stakeholders, the likely employers of our graduates”, she said. An added advantage is that most of these groups also offer work placements during vacations, and internships while the students are studying, and they could also provide bursaries or scholarships for specific programmes. Key funding acts as a great incentive for students.

The Mastercard Foundation

The ability to control funding in the form of bursaries also provides the opportunity to address crucial academic areas that are lacking in numbers. One organisation that is tackling this is the Mastercard Foundation. Board member Professor Philip Clay described how, after having discovered that attention to numeracy was neglected by students and institutions, the foundation has “given a great deal of attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) education to help boost their enrolment”.

This focus on Stem is crucial to the role higher education plays in fostering growth within African countries. A focus on these areas creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators, whose innovations lead to new products and processes that sustain economies.

One of major criticisms leveled at Africa’s higher education institutions today is that they do not provide equal access. This is particularly the case for women in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is estimated that there are only about 62 female students for every 100 male students. 

There are historical, cultural and economic factors that continue to hinder women’s chances in access to and benefits from formal education, especially at the tertiary level, and this is compounded by the structures of many African universities that remain deliberately masculine, in terms of their representational structure, decision-making procedures and the culture of their members. 

Among other things, this exclusion of women from key sectors of education may have deleterious effects on national development. In all African countries for example, there is a concerted effort to move toward modern agricultural systems, but women must be involved in the policy and strategy development since it is recognised that women do 70-80% of agricultural production. 

Progress on equity

Nevertheless some strides have been made for equity.  The Working Group on Higher Education  of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa in 2006, developed a toolkit for mainstreaming gender in higher education in Africa in collaboration with the Association of African Universities. The toolkit comprises 10 modules and a literature review, and provides practical guidelines on how to initiate a gender-mainstreaming programme and establish helpful processes, with a focus on reviewing the general institutional culture, staff recruitment, student welfare, curriculum development, research and faculty support.

National governments also stepped up for gender equity. For example, to increase female enrolment in tertiary institutions, countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe implemented affirmative action policies. These policies would allow female candidates who have attained the minimum required marks to enter public universities; these marks can be between one and two points lower than those for males. Women’s universities have also been established, such as Zimbabwe’s Women’s University in Africa and Kenya’s Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology.

Equity is not just about gender though. There are also issues of equal access due to financial inequity. Public universities are in a situation where there is huge student enrolment, but some of them shouldn’t be there. Due to this massification the quality declines and so parents may pay the high costs associated with sending their children to a private university and their children may still not find employment. This presents an opportunity for governments to step in.

An example of this is Nigeria’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund. Established in 1993, the fund engages in projects aimed at improving the quality of education in Nigeria. The Federal Inland Reserve Services collects the taxes and pays them into a fund with the Central Bank of Nigeria. A board manages the resources, which have already become a substantial source of financial assistance to the various institutions in the country.

In fact, most of the recent capital developments in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions have been sponsored or financed by the fund. In 2014, for example, the fund spent $95-million to facilitate academic programmes for selected lecturers from all the public tertiary institutions in the country.

The issue of teaching quality causes grave concern about Africa’s higher education, particularly the loss of staff to universities abroad that offer better salaries, and there is also a low ratio of professional staff teaching in tertiary systems without PhDs. There are already 50% more students per lecturer in sub-Saharan Africa than the global average, which puts a strain on teaching quality. In Kenya the situation is particularly dire in major public universities, where there are now as many as 64 students for every member of academic staff. 

Enter virtual universities

One of the ways in which this is being dealt with is through the establishment of Virtual Universities, such as the African virtual university. This Pan-African intergovernmental organisation, involving 18 African countries, delivers programmes through information and communication technologies. This not only means students in remote or isolated areas can access higher education courses, but it also allows African students to engage in real-time discussions with professors both on the continent and abroad. Since its inception in 1997, it has had 43 000 students enrol.

For those not dealing with the virtual, over the past 10 years or so, a vast number of councils for higher education have been developed on the continent, their main role being to ensure quality assurance in all aspects, including teaching. According to Tade Aina, two of the best of these are, in South Africa, the Council on Higher Education, and in Uganda, the National Council for Higher Education.

The movement for the revitalisation of Africa’s higher education sector is truly under way, as these institutions have demonstrated. Through the support of civil society organisations like TrustAfrica, which foster increased conversation on the topics between the relevant institutional, governmental and private sector actors, the chance of achieving world-class education across the board is within the continent’s grasp.

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