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Past Editorial : April 2009

April 2009

African Higher Education in the Era of Bailouts and Stimulus Packages—Good Intentions, Vanishing Resources, and Persistent Gaps

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.


Introduction

A decade or so ago, in the Summer 2000 issue of International Higher Education (IHE), under the title “Endowing African Universities–Cultivating Sustainability,” I wrote

The leaders of American higher education institutions anticipate that when the economic frenzy and boom come to an end—they will have expanded their financial base to last them through the difficult times that may lie ahead.

Given that boom and bust are core tenets of the business of economics, such a forecast may not be that surprising, after all. Now the economic frenzy and boom have come to an end, and both those that stashed away some resources for a rainy day and those that did not face the current global financial and economic crisis equally.

 

Trust Funds for Higher Education: Pursue Regionally, Execute Selectively 

Nearly a half-decade ago, in an article in the Winter 2005 issue of IHE entitled “Establishing Endowments for African Universities—Strategies for Implementation,” I once more wrote:

One major approach that virtually none of the major foundations involved in Africa has yet undertaken but need to consider is to help establish endowments for select national flagship universities and put in place the operational procedures to sustain it. Endowing African universities would for sure have an enduring impact on the continent’s higher education development…. It is important to point out the need for foundations and other philanthropic institutions not only to commit funds to establish endowments but also to help mobilize the resources of other entities—institutions, foundations, businesses, the diaspora/immigrant community, and others—toward the endowment drive.

I noted further:

The collaborative initiative between the Nippon and Tokyo Foundations—Japanese philanthropic institutions—may be singled out as the first major endowment initiative involving African higher education institutions. The foundations committed U.S. $1 million in endowment grants for each of the three African higher education institutions in Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. American University in Cairo, the University of Nairobi, and the University of Western Cape are beneficiaries of this initiative.

In this time of tremendous financial and economic crisis, bailouts, and stimulus packages, reiterating the idea of endowing the higher education system in Africa now, long after the time of global affluence and economic prosperity (outside of Africa, anyway), would appear slightly out of tune with reality. However, given the consensus that development without a viable higher education system is simply impossible, the need for strong higher education in the region at this time of crisis is even more pressing. Despite the current unfortunate state of the global economy, and the difficulty of mobilizing resources (for instance, by way of a trust fund), it is all the more imperative to build strong higher education institutions to achieve economic success and meaningful development.

Whereas universities in the rest of the world may benefit from bailouts and stimulus packages, directly or indirectly, African institutions may not have that luxury. For instance, even without stimulus packages, universities in the U.S. seem regularly to deflect the full force of economic depression through the phenomenon of higher enrollment numbers that typically follow economic turbulence. For Africa, where higher education seems to have always been on “life support,” such safety net mechanisms unfortunately do not exist.

I would like to reiterate that the region-wide effort to endow African universities, especially the flagship institutions, must be pursued vigorously and aggressively now and in the future. At the same time, it is also prudent to expand an already existing scheme of establishing endowments for select flagship universities at the country level. Indeed, these two efforts should be pursued collectively. This will require a prudent, focused, and pragmatic strategy to execute effectively. As new and old institutions are all expecting to be treated the same, in the spirit of “egalitarianism”, the identification of beneficiary institutions would be more complicated by political, logistical, and administrative idiosyncrasies. (See Accelerating Catch-Up—Mopping up the Last Barricades.)

 

Policy vs. Resources: The Unfortunate Dissonance 

The importance of higher education for African development was recently (and quite notably) re-established. As a result, the sector has been on the agenda of numerous stake holders. In an important policy document entitled Towards Knowledge Societies, UNESCO strongly emphasized the importance of higher education as a key factor for cultural, social, and economic development (UNESCO, 2005). The World Bank in its recent publication, Accelerating Catch-Up (which was released in the presence of numerous finance ministers from Africa), once again underscored that: “Capital is a necessary handmaiden, but the arbiter of economic success—even survival—in the world today is the capacity to mobilize knowledge and to use it to the fullest” (World Bank, 2009).

I have always been somewhat skeptical about the attempts to prove whether higher education contributes to national development. However, a comprehensive study by Bloom, Canning, and Chan (2005)—based on analysis of data covering 103 countries from 1960 through 2000—unequivocally established that higher education can significantly increase incomes and the rate of economic growth.

Alas, just when we felt that the policy space guiding higher education in Africa was gathering momentum, the resources that help sustain its development seem to be depleted both at the internal and external levels due to the current global economic meltdown. It is common knowledge that basic services, such as education and health care, are often the first casualties of poor economic environments. The harsh reality is that during hard economic times, higher education, the expensive sub-sector of the system, is often slashed severely. Though there is some hope that parts of bailouts and stimulus packages at the national and international levels may somehow trickle down to developing countries, we have yet to see this happen. Whether these will have any meaningful impact on higher education in the region is a different matter.

It is important to stress, however, that whereas all efforts to diversify resources for higher education in the region need to be explored, it is naïve to rely unduly on external resources for its development. Countries need to make informed, unbiased, and strategic decisions to effectively mobilize their own resources in order to harness higher education for national development.

 

African Higher Education Area: Strength in Numbers 

In these tumultuous times, numerous regional and international initiatives and dialogues on higher education in Africa are underway. The Association of African Universities will be holding its General Conference in Abuja, Nigeria in early May 2009 on a theme entitled “Sustainable Development in Africa: The Role of Higher Education”. USAID and Higher Education for Development just announced the twenty winners of the Africa-US Higher Education Initiative Planning Grant Competition. The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, the consortium of seven US-based foundations, announced in October 2008 a “unanimous decision to continue” grant making aimed at strengthening higher education in Africa beyond the 10-year commitment.

The African ministers of (higher) education are gearing up for the World Conference on Higher Education in Paris in July 2009. They have already met in November 2008 and made several recommendations that include the establishment of the African Higher Education Area and the African Higher Education Trust Fund, among others.

At a conference entitled “The Third Conference on Knowledge and Politics” held at the University of Bergen, Norway in May 2005, I presented a paper entitled “The Bologna Process: The Experience—and Challenges—for Africa.” At this event, I first articulated the need to establish such an African higher education consortium as such:

As much closer relationships among constituent countries are forged and as economic and social integration on the continent becomes an increasing reality, the need to create an “African Higher Education Alliance” in the image of the “European Higher Education Area” becomes a necessity. Many national, regional, and international issues increasingly bind together the nation states of Africa and the need to establish such an alliance is therefore mandatory.

Establishing such an area of higher education is more pressing now because such a consortium will help to collectively confront the complex global challenges that face higher education, such as the GATS; encourage regional cooperation for research, teaching, and innovation; and establish a standardized means of recognizing credentials to promote regional integration.

 

Expanding the Scholarly Forum: Maintaining Institutional Memory 

In recent years, many government ministers, permanent secretaries, policy makers, vice-chancellors, administrators, institutional leaders, foundation staff, researchers, and consultants, who at some point took a leading role in African higher education (and many of whom I had the pleasure of knowing personally) have moved on to other interests or responsibilities, walking away with massive “institutional memory.” Even more problematic, due to the lack of mandatory experience and the ease with which expertise on higher education can be claimed, I have also observed how some new and naïve individuals have taken leadership roles in national and regional dialogues without sufficient background or knowledge. Numerous unpublished (and frankly unpublishable) papers from conferences, meetings, and symposia easily prove this observation.

At a time when serious dialogue on higher education is taking place all over the world, the African higher education landscape suffers tremendously from the lack of a sustainable and visible scholarly forum that can serve to shape the dialogue and take ownership of the discussion, for example by way of a serious periodical. The glaring absence from the landscape of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa, which I founded in 2003 to address these issues—and subsequently relocated at CODESRIA in Dakar, but which has failed to publish an issue for the last two years (CODESRIA, 2009)—is painfully regrettable.

I have no intention of preaching to the choir on the need to maintain a reliable, visible, critical, and independent scholarly forum, such as a journal, whose main function would be to keep track of arguments and counter-arguments, shape a dialogue and policy, engage stakeholders in a focused manner, serve as a central node to draw lessons and share experiences, and act as an intellectual fountain and opinion maker. Whereas numerous regional and sub-regional organizations strive to address the complex issues confronting the sector in a variety of ways, none have attained the capacity to maintain the intellectual dialogue throughout the region in a systematic, sustainable, organized and inclusive manner—yet.

Put simply, African higher education suffers from the lack of a central intellectual forum that pursues dialogue in a sustained, visible, meaningful, and critical manner. This could not be better illustrated than by a recent memo which was addressed to me by a South African doctoral candidate who wishes to do his thesis on African higher education. Part of his memo, which mentions that his advisor has refused to support his dissertation on African higher education, reads sadly:

In one of my classes we are addressing critical issues in international education that involves examining the internationalizing of higher education in China, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the U.S. I noticed that Africa did not appear in the syllabus. I asked the professor why Africa was excluded. His response was “I could not find any journals written by a leading international African educator” (Email communication, Feb. 18, 2009).

There is no intention to debate here the validity of the professor’s argument, but simply to underscore the gravity of the absence of such a serious journal in the region. This intellectual gap not only prevents meaningful dialogue but also stunts the development of the field.

 

Conclusion 

This is not the best of times for higher education in Africa—yet again. Of course, the laudable efforts of ministries of higher education, relevant NGOs, foundations, policy makers, administrators and others to maintain the sector’s momentum cannot be overemphasized. Still, as the sector is gaining recognition as an engine for sustained development, the current global and regional economic woes seem to weaken its newly re-energized status.

I have one central message to all those who have been engaged in the region’s higher education development, dialogue, and advocacy. As the Journal of Higher Education in Africa may have lost its luster, or even its existence, I call up on all stakeholders of African higher education—past and present—to start a serious conversation on the establishment of a new, similar periodical. Whether or not the fledgling Journal will come back to life is a non-issue now, as the issues of higher education are evidently growing—in magnitude and complexity—necessitating more outlets for analysis, dialogue and critique.

The practice of pursuing dialogue on major and critical issues of the field needs to be mounted on platforms that are fiercely rigorous and independent, stand up to intellectual scrutiny, command respect and recognition, attract attention from a wider audience regionally and globally, and engage stakeholders effectively. The argument for a new periodical on higher education in Africa—regional in its roots but global in its reach—has never been more urgent.

 

Sources

Bloom, D., D. Canning, & K. Chen. 2005. Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa. Washington, DC, World Bank.

Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). 2009. http://www.codesria.org/Links/Publications/jheatoc/current_issue_jhea.htm

Teferra, Damtew. Summer 2000. Endowing African Universities–Cultivating Sustainability. International Higher Education. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/newsletter/News20/text9.html

Teferra, Damtew. Winter 2005. Establishing Endowments for African Universities—Strategies for Implementation. International Higher Education. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/newsletter/News38/text016.htm

Teferra, Damtew. 2005. The Bologna Process: The Experience—and Challenges—for Africa. A paper presented at the Third Conference on Knowledge and Politics. University of Bergen, Norway, May 2005.

Teferra, Damtew. 2008. Accelerating Catch-Up—Mopping up the Last Barricades.http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/inhea/editorial/Editorial02_Teferra.htm

UNESCO. 2005. Towards Knowledge Societies. Paris: Unesco.

World Bank. 2008. Accelerating Catch-Up—Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, D.C. World Bank.

 

 

 

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