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Past Editorial : December 2008

December 2008

Accelerating Catch-up — Mopping up the Last Barricades

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.

Accelerating Catch-up
 (World Bank, 2008), a third major installment by the World Bank on higher education in Africa, further liberates the continent from the yokes of imposed, and most importantly its own flawed, intellectual discourse that gripped the system for a long time. It is indeed a very welcome boost to several other voices that have always recognized the critical role of higher education in development.

The report, which fully embraces the role of higher education today, is a far cry from the World Bank’s position in the past. It now declares “neglecting tertiary education could seriously jeopardize SSA’s [sub-Saharan Africa] longer-term growth prospects, and slow progress toward MDGs, [Millennium Development Goals] many of which require tertiary-level training to implement.” This is indeed a major turn-around from the time when higher education was declared a luxury the continent could ill-afford.

The report covers numerous aspects of higher education on the continent and therefore it is impossible to provide an exhaustive review here. This article thus focuses, therefore, on the major highlights of the report.


No Straightjacket: No Generic Panacea

The report stresses that each country should map its own course, using its own unique national development strategy, and drawing lessons of good practice from other countries. It recognizes that the countries in Africa have achieved sufficient diversity in their higher education systems and advises that the Bank’s own analyses and recommendations should be contextualized to the realities of each respective country. A one-size-fit-all approach has given way to country-specific realities. The current discourse aptly discounts a generic panacea for the complex challenges that currently confront higher education systems in the region.


Countering Homogeneity: Restraining Egalitarianism

Quite dramatic developments in higher education in Africa have taken place in the last 15 years. Unprecedented growth among private providers, new and upgraded public institutions, and unconventional forms of delivery have expanded the system considerably. However, with about a five percent enrollment rate, higher education on the continent still remains elitist.

Whereas expansion of the system has been dramatic, differentiation and diversification have not kept pace. Most of the for-profit private institutions have directly focused on limited market-oriented programs, creating homogeneity. Meanwhile, the “flagship” universities are now competing for resources with the newly established and elevated public universities, as egalitarianism has become a benchmark to disbursing resources.

As access is expanding and new institutions are opening, the need to establish some hierarchy in the sector has become more imperative. Establishing such hierarchy allows for the building of strong research institutions that enhance socio-economic development. Research is a very expensive undertaking; the economic state of African countries dictates that institutions cannot and should not be nurtured equally—but rather differently. Egalitarianism in establishing national knowledge systems and research is out of place. It is thus critical that a nation identifies its “mother” institution(s) that could effectively leverage other national academic, economic and social institutions. The report rightly underscores that public expenditure for higher education has reached a threshold at which there is a need to replace homogeneity with heterogeneity and egalitarianism with “favoritism.”


Private Institutions: Pros and Cons of Expansion

Private providers—both for-profit and non-profit—are fast expanding access to higher education on the continent. In many countries they have eased pressure on public institutions and governments, created financial opportunity for the academic community, and developed dynamic and diversified programs. The report’s recommendation that these providers receive loans and grants is thus an important intervention.

Expansion did not come without a price though. A large proportion of the faculty in private institutions is part-time while maintaining full-time positions at public universities. This has created divided loyalty, attention, and commitment leaving little room for research. In an already financially constrained environment, whatever research interest that existed has been overtaken by the drive to generate more income externally. While the expansion of private providers is to be welcomed, it has unintended consequences on the knowledge -generating capacity of nations, which the report barely mentions.


Generating Resources: Campaigns Run Amok

Resource generating efforts have increased in the last several years as part of the many strategic planning initiatives executed in several institutions. The report singles out the impact of these activities in raising income for institutions and improving living and working conditions for the university community, particularly the academic community.

Among the institutional efforts, the introduction of Module I and Module II programs is most common. This approach allows for fee-paying and non-fee paying students in the same public institutions. In some cases the fee-paying students already outnumber the non-fee paying by a substantial margin.

In a few countries, the faculty have become more engaged and focused on the fee-paying students (Module II), as faculty compensation depends on the number of these students. Despite the positive changes these resources have brought about, they have also pushed the academic community away from research, as intensive teaching consumes faculty time.


Ensuring Quality: Consolidating the Forts

Mobilizing non-public resources and opening up the market to internal and external private higher education providers to expand access have grown in importance. Concurrently, a growing number of dubious institutions and fraudulent schemes have emerged.

As more providers are attracted by the hungry market, such fraudulent activities are expected to grow. These pose a serious threat to the quality of higher education and the development of strong knowledge systems as a whole. The World Bank’s ongoing efforts and its recommendation to strengthen regulatory mechanisms are laudable. However, the absence of analysis of WTO effects on higher education is a visible gap.


Unparalleled Power of Influence: Continuity of Dominance

The report was unveiled in the company of African finance ministers in a roundtable meeting hosted by the Bank. The announcement on the Bank’s website states that the report was warmly greeted by the participants. While the report states that it is an outcome of discussions at conferences, it does not say if the final report has actually been discussed by other stakeholders—development partners, such as UNESCO, higher education researchers, and policy analysts—before it was released to the group.

The whole menu of the Bank’s higher education discourse was served to the captive audience of ministers not in education, but finance. While finance ministers are often powerful in government, they are not higher education experts. Including (higher) education ministers, not just for symbolic reasons but also to engage all vital stakeholders in this meeting, could have had more impact. The process of engagement and inclusiveness the Bank mentions is a vital one which needs to be practiced by all, including the World Bank itself.

Mobilizing the Diaspora: The Untapped Resource

Physical distance upon which brain drain is premised has lost some of its impact by unprecedented technological advances. Research projects can be conceived, launched, and implemented from different locations by researchers who are, literally, a world apart. “Invisible colleges” that function across institutional and national boundaries have flourished considerably, opening up a world of opportunities for collaboration.

Intellectual Diaspora communities are now actively engaging with their counterparts at home and across the region, albeit in largely ad hoc ways. These invisible colleges have great potential but need to be mobilized in a systematic manner with considerable technical, logistical, and financial support. The task of mobilizing the intellectual Diaspora is fraught with numerous challenges, however (as noted in the IHE Spring 2004). The report, though thin on this issue, does advance these possibilities.


Audacious Claim: Neglected History

The report states that “higher education has always been part of its [the Bank’s] agenda”. This assertion might simply be overlooked. First, such a claim clearly contradicts the Bank’s long-standing, albeit recently shifted, position that hampered higher education development on the continent. Second, the claim, in effect, annuls the Bank’s earlier recognition in recent publications of its own oversight. Third, the claim once again denies recognition of numerous institutions and individuals who have been at the forefront confronting the flawed policy since its inception. Fourth, the report contradicts itself by stating that “many of the earlier reservations to the Bank’s engagement with tertiary education in Africa faded from prominence because of achievement and change, even as compelling new justifications for tertiary education development pushed to the fore.” Fifth, it also unduly charges other development partners for following its lead—unfairly spreading the blame.

Steven Sakar, the BBC Hardtalk host on 22 October 2008 posed this question in his opening remark on the growing financial crisis as he hosted Professor Mark Gertler, a leading US economist: “Do those economists who brought us the current economic crisis can be trusted in rebuilding it [sic]?” Is it unfair or irrelevant to pose the same question to the Bank, which has a similar history, and even more to the point, to demand an explanation about this statement?


Conclusion: Closing the Gap–In-Sourcing Knowledge Production

The list of resources in the report is exhaustive and the composition of the external advisory panel is also diverse. Yet some of the data in the report are out of date. For instance, the document reports 12 private colleges in Ethiopia when that figure has grown by more than fivefold to 60+ in recent years. If any thing, this situation reflects the lack of a systematic, sustained, and visible source of information and research on higher education in the region.

The absence of major research institutions in Africa is further exhibited by the production of such major reports on its behalf by external institutions as the Bank—with all the attendant consequences. With expansion, differentiation and complexity of higher education systems on the continent, strengthening the research capacity to study the sector is paramount. It is thus imperative that institutions that promote alternatives to the Bank’s undisputed dominance in African higher education discourse be strongly nurtured, with or without the tutelage of the Bank.

*An abridged version of this paper will appear in International Higher Education, Number 54, Winter 2009






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