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.
My colleagues and partners at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, Professors Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit, just jointly published a piece on the University World News (11 November 2016) entitled “Now we face the (temporary?) end of American internationalism”. They posited that the incoming US presidency may be inward looking and may either curtail its global engagements, or worse eliminate some of the established programmes the country prides in, as in Fulbright.
While they took some comfort in the preeminence and prestige of the US higher education system to blunt this possible impact, they worry that the pre-election rhetoric, possibly followed by aggressive policies in the future, may dampen this standing quality consequently driving students and academics to more open and competitive English-speaking countries. It is the view of this author that this possible changes may be of no consequence to African higher education.
US Policies Vis-à-Vis Rivals’ Actions
It is the view of this author also that while he agrees with both his colleagues that such aggressive posturing is far from helpful, he does not anticipate a dent on the US higher education system as such. His observation reminisces on the Bush Administration’s hostile policy, at the earlier days of post-911, which however ultimately had marginal impact on student mobility and academic exchange.
It is true that American universities continue to play an important role in training quite a large number of students from around the world—including those from Africa. Yet however those from the African continent are predominantly supported by either private sources (including personal funds or foundations) or institutional assistantship/scholarships—and not US government funded programmes. Therefore, whatever “harsh” policies the new presidency intends to pursue, its effect may be minimal on the state of African higher education.
It is also important to view this potential disengagement of the US against the growing, and keen, interest in Africa from other corners around the world. While the US government may opt to curtail, even worse ignore Africa in its engagement, others from Brazil to China, from India to South Korea from Japan to Turkey are proactively striving to consolidate their partnership with the continent.
The Chinese engagement with Africa in social, economic and financial fronts is widely recorded, though its scope in higher education remains to be analyzed. In its recently held major event in Kenya, touted as “Advancing Africa’s Sustainable Development Agenda”, Japan—China’s “rival” in Africa along with India—broadly stated promoting science, technology, and innovation; capacity building; and fostering research and development in Africa, albeit without reference to higher education. Russia, South Korea and Turkey have also joined the rendezvous, crowding the list of emerging, established and historical players.
Contemporary East Meets Former East
The two most populous countries of China and India each enrolls some 30 million students in their respective higher education systems. The figure for the US stands at some 22 million—a figure comparable to Africa currently. Yes, Africa and the US now have comparable number of student population in their higher education systems.
Thus, for a massive and massifying system of higher education in Africa, the US government contribution to the sector has been and will be miniscule—and even inconsequential. This however does not mean that US institutional resources—self-generated or others supported through the foundations, as in the joint Partnership for Higher Education in Africa—are not important.
The SDGs, as I argued in the past, fell far short of expectations in centrally situating higher education in this global blue print—as now backed by diverse players as the OECD, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the African Union, the European and African University Associations, among others. Some however take solace in the two sections (of the SDGs) which state that “4.3: By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university” and “4.b: By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries”.
The first one, 4.3, largely advocates for equal access, while the second one, 4.b, prompts the intensification of overseas studies. These statements of the SDGs, which directly speak to higher education, fell far short of the comprehensive provisions anticipated in revitalizing the higher education sector in Africa.
China has recently pledged to provide some 30,000 government scholarship opportunities for African students. Most certainly, this figure dwarfs any such government commitment to Africa anywhere in the world—in the past or the present. Only rarely, as in at the climax of the Cold War Era when both the East and the West were scrambling to win the hearts and minds of satellite clienteles—and the African higher education was at its infancy—that similar scenarios were recorded. For instance, by 1990, on the eve of collapse of the former Soviet Union—and the beginning of the end of the Cold War Era—the number of Africans studying in the country rose to 30,000, though some put the figure to around 40,000.
Not many large scale interventions as such may be plausible in the current state of shifting political ground around the world, as noted by Altbach and de Wit. In any case, because the African higher education system has grown massively, only huge interventions are likely to make visible impact. It appears that neither the US nor the other ‘retreating’ nations are ready for that, probably except Germany as discussed below.
Second Marshall Plan?
It was just reported that Germany will be unveiling the so called “Marshall Plan with Africa”. The Marshall Plan—named after the US Secretary of State, George Marshall—was established as a US strategic approach to resuscitate the war torn Europe at the end of the Second World War. In this strategic scheme, the United States donated over USD12 billion—about USD120 billion in current dollar value—to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of the War.
Such a call for African Marshall Plan has been on the offing for some time now. But its consideration could not have come at a better time when the world—led by the US, the UK, France, and others—is largely looking inwards, disengaging from global partnerships and multilateral diplomacy, as both Altbach and de Wit argued. While many in development corners may have quite a legitimate concern and reservations of such externally driven initiatives, as the Marshall Plan to Africa, this scheme however had abundantly demonstrated its transformative power elsewhere in the past.
It is true that the rationale for proposing this Plan, as stated in the communique, is largely driven by a home-grown interest to address the current and future crisis in Europe. Regardless, the symbolism and the weight it carries at this time of retreating global engagement and diplomacy is rather significant. The fact that Africa has now emerged as a global scene of a cacophony of interests makes this plan all the more interesting.
Pressing and forbidding global challenges of massive proportion—from Zika Virus to Ebola, from terrorism to narcotrafficking, from El-Nino to rising oceans, from Arab uprising to European migrant crisis, from illicit off shore banking and tax evasion to corruption—profoundly yearn, more than ever before, for a new contract and sustained form of global and regional engagements premised on mutual benefits. The building of African higher education in particular and its knowledge and development institutions as a whole ought to be strategically understood within these global realities of the day—that what is bad for the goose, is bad for the gander.
It is out of sync that Africa, and for that matter the so called developing countries as a whole, continue to plead and appeal for a fair, equitable, transparent, and sustainable partnership—and development—for making the world a better place. It is abundantly clear that this has become a critical matter of survival for all and ensuring a better future for generations. While such rare proposals—as Germany’s Marshall Plan—are appealing and thus worthy of consideration, the act of (current and future) inward-looking, self-centered, and disengaged policies—of the US and others—may need to be proactively resisted by all those concerned. Higher learning institutions around the world need to play a prominent, if not a leading, role in this global struggle.
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