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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
The World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE) took place in Paris at UNESCO headquarters from July 5 to 8, 2009. According to the closing speech by the Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura, the conference attracted more than 1,000 participants from more than 150 countries, and included university rectors, researchers, students, business leaders, ministers, heads of state, and development partners.
The conference web page (http://www.unesco.org/en/wche2009) states that the event called “governments to increase investment in higher education, encourage diversity and strengthen regional cooperation to serve societal needs.” Further, the final communiqué noted “At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity,” and stressed that “higher education must pursue the goals of equity, relevance and quality simultaneously.”
In recognition of the troubled state of higher education in Africa, the conference held a special session on the region’s higher education. Participants underlined “the urgency for the adoption of new dynamics in African higher education that work towards a comprehensive transformation to sharply enhance its relevance and responsiveness to the political, social and economic realities of African countries.”
In this editorial, I briefly explore the major achievements as well as the gaps of this historic conference as it relates to Africa. I also offer some recommendations and suggestions to help ensure the success of the initiatives coming out of the conference for revitalizing the African higher education system.
Liberation Officially Declared: The War Has Been Won
The main achievement of this conference is not necessarily the agenda it has articulated for the future, nor even the specific pledges that were made aimed at revitalizing the subsector. The most important outcome of this major conference is the way that it finally liberated African higher education from the restrictive and flawed policies that guided it for more than two decades.
It is true that, in the last several years, a number of attempts have been made to reverse the defective policy that declared higher education as undeserving of support. If those attempts were considered a series of battles to reverse the policy, the conference was clearly the culmination of that conflict, where victory was finally declared.
Indeed, the WCHE affirmed the crucial role of higher education in social and economic development and the persistent need to support it. It is now time to ride the momentum that has been generated in order to build the higher education subsector in concert with the rest of the educational and knowledge creating subsystems.
Policy Dialogue: Ownership and Direction
For over two decades, higher education policy dialogue and formulation processes in Africa have been dominated by large international actors such as the World Bank, much to the detriment of the subsector in particular and knowledge systems as a whole. Many of us, rightfully, have attacked, countered, and severely critiqued the World Bank’s flawed policy for African higher education during this period. Changing course, the Bank has produced in recent years several major publications, including Constructing Knowledge Societies (2002) and Catching Up (2008), that have affirmed the importance of higher education, thereby reversing its earlier positions—although some of the recent country sector studies still do not yet fully reflect that affirmation. And while the damage inflicted by the flawed policy may take years to reverse, if ever, the World Bank is a punching bag no longer.
It is time now to chart a new strategy in policy making and policy dialogue that is inclusive of all the stakeholders at the regional and international level. Given its tremendous financial, technical, and intellectual resources, the World Bank will still continue to play a major role in shaping the direction of higher education in Africa. This time around, however, there is hope that it will engage all the stakeholders in the spirit of true and equal partnership. No major policy decisions should be made on behalf of the continent without going through a rigorous critique and genuine dialogue involving supporters and detractors alike.
Players in the Region’s Higher Education Landscape: The Old Meets the New
Several pledges were made at the WCHE to support African higher education both by old and new “development partners.” These pronouncements were frequently interrupted by cheerful applause. The old players pledged more support to the struggling higher education systems in the region. The new ones in the field—Brazil, China, India and Korea—also broadly and specifically laid out their pledges of support and mutual cooperation in the region.
Brazil announced the opening of new universities to provide scholarship opportunities to Portuguese-speaking African countries on a scale not seen before. China and India stressed their interest in strengthening partnerships and cooperation between Africa and their respective countries. Already, both China and India have established centers of Chinese and Indian studies in the region, notably in South Africa (Teferra, 2009). Chinese studies are also being offered as degree programs in universities in Zimbabwe, to be followed soon in Ghana.
The landscape of higher education in Africa is now entertaining both new and old players attracted and driven by a numerous and complex array of objectives and missions. It is imperative that the region in general and respective countries in particular carefully review higher education partnership initiatives—with both the new and the old players—articulate their short-term and long-term priorities wisely, and communicate them effectively.
Raising Awareness: Dislodging the Past Discourse
The challenges of implementing new policies that are contrary to or in competition with old ones are well recognized by experts in organizational behavior. It requires considerable effort, resources, and time to dislodge old “entrenched” policies and replace them with new and presumably “progressive” ones.
Meaningful change requires the training of a host of local, national, regional, and international institutions and their staff regarding the new discourse on higher education. For instance, a more systematic and strategic approach to engage both internal and external stakeholders needs to be put in place to expound the new policy deliberations. It is important to recall that when the World Bank released its latest publication, Catching Up (2008), it did so in the company of many finance ministers from Africa. Creating a dialogue forum for ministries of finance and education at both national and regional levels to deliberate on the new policy, for instance, will play a positive role in expanding the support base for the renewed commitment to higher education.
Unpacking the Notion of the “Public Good”
The term “public good” was used extensively during the deliberations at the conference. For many, who have fought for a long time in favor of higher education as a public good, the delight at the official affirmation of this notion was evident. It was obvious, however, that the phrase was broadly understood to mean free higher education. It should be made clear, however, that free higher education is not free at all; someone pays for it. And in countries where the standard of living is low and the disparity between the poor and the rich is high—as is the case in many African countries—declaring that social services will be free for all actually has the effect of imposing a regressive tax on those who are already economically disadvantaged. This is especially true in countries where progressive taxations are not (seriously) pursued.
Quite considerable work remains to be done in order to effectively communicate the essence of “public good.” The consequence of pursuing unqualified public good policies with regard to higher education would be an inadvertent and indirect taxation on the poor that would subsidize the rich. Already the affluent are disproportionately represented in major public institutions in Africa. This occurs because they have good educational opportunities at primary and secondary school levels and, even more importantly, are often better prepared for university entrance exams. Simply put, a poor peasant who scrapes by every day must not subsidize the schooling of the affluent, who can already afford to pay for it. As we enter a new phase in African higher education development, it is thus prudent to unpack the meaning and consequences of public good.
International Academic Mobility: The Missed Opportunity for Africans
A special session dedicated to African higher education explored numerous issues and challenges that the subsector constantly faces. During this event, and later at the deliberations and within the final conference communiqué, one issue of particular concern to African intellectuals—international mobility—was completely overlooked.
One of the most common hurdles for African intellectuals—students, faculty, and researchers—who wish to pursue academic opportunities overseas, is the cumbersome visa application and acquisition process. First, applicants must apply for visas well in advance of their scheduled travel, often without regard to issues such as late admissions for students, for example. Second, visa fees for many countries are getting prohibitive for many African applicants. Third, and even more challenging, applicants are forced to pay non-refundable fees every time they present themselves at embassies or consulates.
The geopolitical realty in the world in the aftermath of September 11 raised the stakes of international travel quite high, making it even more difficult for those who have always faced travel difficulties. For instance, individuals holding passports from 25 African countries cannot even transit through, let alone travel to, the North without a visa. These issues hinder smooth and “equitable” interaction and cooperation between intellectuals in the South and the North, and certainly have a detrimental effect on the “net” flow of knowledge across the two regions (Teferra, 2008). African intellectuals abroad also face xenophobic and racist attacks not simply in the North but also within the region, as well.
The WCHE session on “Student and Institutional Mobility,” where I had the privilege to present on African intellectual mobility, noted the special challenges the region’s intellectuals face. It is, however, unfortunate that both the broader conference deliberations and the final communiqué overlooked these hurdles and, in doing so, missed a unique opportunity to raise awareness and help address the obstacles.
While it is hoped that multilateral and regional organizations, such as UNESCO and the AAU, will highlight the gravity of this problem, I trust that the new international student association that is now being established will pursue this issue most vigorously and passionately.
Dampening the Euphoria: Concerns of Contravention
In the last decade, higher education has expanded in the region quite dramatically, though the enrollment rate still remains quite low. Both public and private institutions have been expanded following the liberalization of the global economy. In most cases, expansion and revitalization have taken place with conscious regard to national needs and interests.
In some cases, however, the expansion of access and the building of new institutions have been dictated by narrow ethnic, political, or religious interests. A number of so-called universities (institutions that do not even deserve such a designation), have been built where teaching staff, students, labs, and libraries are severely lacking. Moreover, the autonomy and freedom of academic institutions and their personnel in these countries are lamentably eroded under heavy direct and indirect external influence and interference.
It is regrettable that these same countries often shed crocodile tears about the deteriorating quality in their respective higher education systems and even bother to strengthen their quality oversight systems. These countries should realize that they can not veil their misdeeds any longer nor continue to blame their failures on external organizations.
A new era has dawned for higher education in Africa. The pledges made, the good will shared, and the commitment expected coming out of the WCHE are indicative of the new bright period for the subsector. However, whether all the fanfare will bring about the intended results, i.e. the revitalizing of higher education in Africa, is a different matter. To pledge is one thing, to fulfill is something else altogether.
As the players and the issues on the African higher education landscape continue to diversify, it is vital that the regionally and internationally relevant bodies—such as the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), the African Union, UNESCO, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank, among others—play an active and visible role in shaping the new era of higher education in the region. It is an opportune time for these institutions to come together to collectively define the future and share the roadmap for achieving key objectives with all the stakeholders—the old and the new.
Teferra, D. (2009). Higher Education in Africa: The Dynamics of International Partnerships and Interventions. In Roberta M. Bassett & Alma M. Maldonado (Eds.), International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally?New York: Taylor and Francis.
Teferra, D. (2008). The International Dimension of Higher Education in Africa: Status, Challenges and Prospects. In Damtew Teferra & Jane Knight (Eds.), Higher Education in Africa: The International Dimension. Boston College and the Association of African Universities. 44-79.
World Bank. 2008. Accelerating Catch-Up—Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, D.C. World Bank.
World Bank. 2002. Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2002.
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