The African declaration and action plan that could change the face of higher education

A one-of-a-kind African Higher Education Summit, organised by the philanthropic organisation TrustAfrica, took place from March 10 to12 in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Often when 500 government representatives, corporates and industry players are brought together in a conference like this, it simply becomes an expensive talking shop. Issues are raised and addressed, but there is no follow-through. Not this time.

Africa’s higher education sector has witnessed tremendous growth over the last few decades. However, increasing enrolment rates have meant that educational quality has often suffered.

The urgency in revitalising Africa’s higher education systems was shared by the stakeholders, who all have visions of prosperity and integration. International agencies, once sceptical about the value of university education in Africa’s social economic development, are now among the chief advocates of this movement.

Following the summit was a draft declaration and action plan that has been years in the making. African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was present at the meeting and was adamant that she “didn’t just want a declaration — she wanted an action plan”, said Omotade “Tade” Akin Aina, an architect behind the African Higher Education Summit and a TrustAfrica board member.

Tade said: “Zuma has publicly declared herself as a champion for this process, as did other professors, politicians and technocrats, both continental and national.”

Having this weight behind the action plan will see it taken to the next level. “Zuma has initiated the formation of an informal working group that will work with her and give her the materials she will need to present at a convening with African governments and heads of state, an action which she set into motion before we left the summit,” said Tade.

Omano Edigheji, TrustAfrica Summit director who led the initial engagement sessions, said that the next steps will be to “feed the declaration and action plan into the medium term framework that the African Union is developing to implement the African Agenda 2063”. He went on to say that there was already commitment from various governments. “Senegal’s President Macky Sall committed to table the declaration and action plan at the next African Union summit. All the ministers at the summit [in fact also] committed themselves to table the declaration at the next meeting of African ministers of education.” 

These are exciting prospects as once the declaration and action plan are completed, it will have the ability to imbue new life and vitality into Africa’s higher education systems.  

The draft includes the goal to identify and develop 200 universities that would constitute a hub of excellence in knowledge, citizenship and relevance to key needs of African development by 2063 — in line with the African Union’s “Agenda 2063” which aims for socioeconomic transformation on the continent within the next 50 years.

It also envisioned that by 2063 each African country would have a higher education hub that can create key elements of development with links to publishing, marketing, ICT and various other aspects of business.

In terms of funding, the draft looks to all sectors of society, urging governments to develop creative taxation policies and funding schemes to finance higher education, and also urging institutions to look into the establishment of robust business arms from which they draw considerable resources.

Improving mobility

For students or professors looking to learn or lecture in other parts of the continent, the draft declaration states that African governments shall facilitate the mobility of students and scholars by minimising visa requirements or making the issuing of their visas much easier. 

It also aims to reach gender parity in tertiary enrolments within a decade, through actions such as ensuring that 100% terminal degrees are attained for faculty within higher education institutions, with at least 54% of them being women, and developing higher education systems that accommodate older students.

To ensure there is less of a disconnect between the employment sector and emerging graduates, the declaration seeks key interventions such as curriculum reforms and partnerships with industry, provision for internships and apprenticeships to introduce students to the world of work and enable broader learning experience for them.

A strong emphasis was placed on the importance of research, with the draft stating that by 2063, African countries should aim to achieve above world averages in levels of gross domestic expenditure in research and development (Gerd). Africa’s share of world Gerd was a mere 0.9% in 2009, constituting a paltry 0.4% of the continent’s GDP, while the continent’s share of researchers, publication, and triadic patents were 2.1%, 2.0%, and 0.1%, respectively. 

To achieve this growth, the declaration states that countries need to increase their Gerd levels to 1% within five years, and incrementally and consistently attain a minimum of 5% by 2063.

To maintain quality and excellence, a key driver is the action plan to establish robust national quality and accrediting agencies, including national councils or commissions of higher education, with powers to sanction institutions for non-compliance. 

This will also be supported by the declaration’s actions to mobilise the diaspora, which include the development of a 10/10 program that sponsors 1 000 scholars in the African diaspora across all disciplines every year for 10 years, and support for African universities and colleges for collaboration in research, curriculum development, and graduate student teaching and mentoring.

The history

The announcement and production of the declaration draft was not a rushed process. Tade explained that “the declaration goes back to consultations and meetings across the continent dating [back] to 2013”, along with four country convenings in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.

At each of the meetings the question of the future of African higher education was pushed to interest groups comprising people specialised in agriculture, science and technology and the humanities, as well those involved in postgraduate training.

As a result, Tade said they “had declarations, recommendations and memoranda for the final summit. These were then distilled to form the core of the declaration”.

Tade was then part of a working group, chaired by Paul Zeleza, where all the information “had to be written, revised … [and] distilled into what we now call the summit declaration and action plan”.

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