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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
A regional conference entitled “African-Norwegian Partnerships in Academic Capacity Building at Crossroads: Achievements, Experience and the Way Ahead” organized by the Norwegian Agency for Development (NORAD), in collaboration with Addis Ababa University and the Norwegian Center for International Co-operation in Higher Education (SIU) was held on 17 and 18 January 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This third and last forum was intended to closely engage the Norwegian policy makers and the African higher education community as the Agency is introducing new programs while phasing out the old ones.
This article has two underlying purposes: the first one is to call upon the Agency to make an amendment to its new policy governing university partnerships and capacity building in Africa and its intention to support undergraduate education. The second one is to serve as a counter argument for other development partners which may be intending to pursue similar such policies.
At the outset, one important point needs to be made clear. Norwegian development cooperation has been known for its long-term commitment, shared ownership and generous support to capacity building in higher education in Africa. The fact that the organization has endeavored to organize three such events in different countries of the region to engage all the stakeholders is a further testimony to these qualities.
The Trigger: The Non-Existent “Bachelors Gap”
At the conference, one of NORAD’s officers, introduced a new phrase called the “Bachelors Gap” to describe the presumed needs at the undergraduate level that the Agency may consider supporting. Further explanations on the need and reasons to support undergraduate education in Africa to deal with that gap was offered. An earlier statement by a vice-chancellor, from a country with only one university, in favor of postgraduate, instead of undergraduate, was also discounted as “wrong”.
Later on, based on the accounts of those who attended the earlier conferences organized by the Agency, the so called “Bachelors Gap” was discussed and described as “marginal” to Africa’s capacity building effort. It is this persistence of the Agency’s position that prompted this editorial commentary, with a purpose to firmly state that African higher education needs external support more at a graduate than undergraduate level to address the deep capacity building challenges.
The Argument: Bachelors Glut
Africa has made tremendous expansion in higher education in the last decade. While the enrollment ratio still hovers around 5 percent, with considerable disparity by countries, it has made remarkable strides in expanding programs, liberalizing the higher education system, and diversifying the delivery mode. For instance, Uganda has increased its enrollment from 10,000 in the early nineties to more than 100,000. Ethiopia, which has shown phenomenal growth, has expanded its public institutions from 2 in early 1990s to 31 now, increasing its enrollment to over 400,000. Much of Africa has already moved from a Bachelors Gap to a “Bachelors Glut” in the last decade creating considerable concern of quality, unemployment and underemployment.
For the region as a whole, the most common higher education challenges decried include overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid and poorly prepared faculty, shortage of qualified faculty, low research capacity, dilapidated infrastructure and buildings, and lack of resources, such as laboratories, consumables and chemicals, and brain drain. In many newly opened universities (and also a good number in the “old” ones), many academics are neither well trained, nor well prepared, nor are they competent enough to teach or do research. Even in those institutions where such a cohort exist, other complex issues hamper higher education quality, innovation, and productivity. Thus a massive capacity building effort needs to be mounted to address these chronic challenges.
Even more so, first hand observations and research account confirms that the region needs support for postgraduate and research, not undergraduate program, which according to a couple of vice-chancellors “something which we can do ourselves” without external support or international partnerships. Scholarship opportunities also show that many African countries are interested more in Doctorate level training than the Masters—and even less so Bachelors. As a matter of relevance, the University of KwaZulu Natal has embarked in a vigorous effort to ensure that all its academic staff hold PhD in the next five years. Zimbabwe is also introducing new guidelines along the same lines.
In such massive undertakings as the undergraduate expansion has been, the role of development partnerships should be to find a critical point where their interventions make a meaningful difference. In countries where multimillion dollars are already spent on higher education expansion, the external intervention needs to shift to critical areas that improve quality of teaching and build capacity in staff development, consolidate research and promote innovation. Even in countries with low enrollment rates currently, but with plans to expansion, external support as one coming from such an Agency, makes more sense, meaning, and impact on graduate education and research capacity building. These are areas that better help vitalize the region’s competitive edge in the global knowledge market place.
The two needs for quality postgraduate education and strong capacity for research are simply tremendous in the region. When Africa thinks of partnership in higher education in the 21st century knowledge economy, it has these two matters in mind; and both of them are not the department of undergraduate education. This is not to state that graduate education should be “unduly” favored at the expense of undergraduate education which in itself faces considerable challenges. The argument here is that with unprecedented expansion in undergraduate programs, the graduate programs have suffered seriously and whatever “more” and “external” support that comes in, should be dedicated there to vitalize it. Thus, not withstanding the “chicken-and-egg” situation, the best approach to revitalizing the undergraduate programs, among others, is building a stronger capacity at the graduate level that churns out competent graduates to improve quality (at the undergraduate level), undertake research, generate knowledge, and pursue innovation. And here is where external interventions, including NORAD, ought to focus.
Opinion Making: The Treacherous Track
In an editorial piece on this forum published in March 2010 “Policy Discourse vs. “Private” Opinions: The Urgent Need for African Higher Education Think Tanks” (http://www.bc.edu/content/bc/research/cihe/inhea/editorial/archives/mar2010.html) it was lamented how opinions of a powerful and not-well-informed individuals, instead of serious research and dialogue, by a competent, informed and concerned people and institutions continue to guide and shape policy discourse. The opinions and sentiments of individuals who cannot see far beyond their departments, let alone universities; their practice, let alone their fields and disciplines; their hobbies, let alone professional interest, have, unfortunately, increasingly become to dominate the scene.
Once again, credible, central and recognized research and advocacy think tanks that are authoritative, visible and credible woefully lack in the African higher education policy landscape. The need for robust research, policy analysis, and information and communication hubs, once again, cannot be overemphasized, particularly given the rapid developments in the African higher education sector. In the absence of such institutions, or in the worst case scenario sidelining opinions of existing ones, populist voices and emotional languages become a trend, a policy and a discourse—to a great detriment to all.
Partnership: The Sphere of Dilemma
Partnership is a two-way traffic of mutual benefits—at least it ought to be. The universities in Africa interested in partnerships far outnumber the few in Norway or any other one country in Europe for that matter. Furthermore, according to an information at a SANROD (Southern Africa-Nordic Partnership) conference in mid-2009, partnership interest and preference with other developing countries are waning as it shifts towards other developed and emerging countries, largely because research endeavors and outputs with such constituencies carry more currency and value.
These reality and trend are such that other mid-level and low-level institutions at home need to fill the gap in order to expand the partnership opportunity but probably only at an undergraduate level. Therefore as the NORAD policy opens an opportunity for partnership for such institutions at home, it may at the same time might diminish its impact and contribution in denting the core challenges of capacity building in the region.
Regardless of the visible reluctance and open rebuttal against the misidentified “Bachleors Gap”, some feel that no meaningful policy change would take place at the Agency. Contrary to that view, one may be persuaded by the comprehensive response of the head of the delegate who concluded that the program will be “flexible” and that the organization will review the trajectory with other home partners in concert with comments received so far. We are awaiting, in anticipation, how this plays out in reality.
According to NORAD’s website (http://www.norad.no/en/about-norad), the Agency, among a host of objectives, intends to “help empower recipient countries to achieve their own development goals” and “produce and apply knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in order to improve development assistance”. On the basis of the underlying facts and arguments stated above, the knowledge and policy of the Agency on higher education and capacity building need to be re-caliberated; simply because it is not in full concert with the first objective of the Agency to empower “recipient countries achieve their own [major] goals”.
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