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African Universities Strive to Make The Grade


News reports paint an picture of African higher education under siege: faculty members striking for higher pay, students protesting a lack of text books, overcrowding and dilapidated facilities, and curricula that fails to prepare them for work after graduation. The source of the problem is often a lack of resources, especially money. But an international effort is underway to help Africa’s institutions of higher learning. And many of them are already reforming themselves to meet the needs of their countries’ developing economies. From Washington, reporter William Eagle has the story.

Professor Akilagpa Sawyerr says African universities get a bad rap [bad reputation]. Sawyerr is the secretary general of the Association of African Universities in Accra, Ghana.

"Virtually the entire public service and more of the private sector in almost every African country has been manned by university graduates from our institutions for the past 30-40 years," he said. "Except for the first decade or so after national independence, when graduates from foreign institutions were the main (employees), the bulk of the leadership of African public and private life has been graduates of African universities."

NEW TIMES, NEW IDEAS

But times have changed, and today’s markets need more than a labor force trained to meet the needs of the public sector. Modern economies, Sawyerr says, require more and more graduates. But slow economic growth makes it unlikely that national governments will give more funds.

He said universities are being called upon not only to tailor curricula to local labor market needs, but also to seek increased donor support, and to do more with less – or rather, to use resources wisely.

Sawyerr said his organization, The Association of African Universities, the AAU, is working to contribute to this. It encourages its 200 member institutions to share information on solutions that work.

INNOVATING A WAY OUT THE PROBLEM

He said, "One thing that’s quite striking is the degree to which virtually every university is innovating to cope with their problems. The picture of the collapse of institutions is only half the story – people are working very hard to innovate -- to try make the most of the conditions they confront."

For example, to alleviate overcrowding, the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, has sought to construct new buildings to accommodate the successful drive to increase enrollment in it’s ambitious Institutional Transformation Program. The university has also appointed a centralized manager to allot classroom space more efficiently and fairly among various faculties. Before, faculties and departments controlled their own space, which sometimes went unused.

The university has also brought the number of women attending the university up to 30 percent of the total student population. Among the strategies was to lower the cut-off points for entry for girls. However, that effort was combined with one to bolster their performance upon entry with “bridging programs” especially in math and science. These remedial courses were provided after graduation from secondary school and ended shortly after entry into the university.

Another example is Makerere University in Uganda, which went into partnership with private property developers to construct modern students hostels within the vicinity of the university campus. This, in order to alleviate over-crowding in the university dormitories.

In the face of increasing enrollments and scarce human resources, African universities are increasingly adopting new technologies such as ICT in teaching, learning and research. Included among the new communications technologies are internet on-line journals which provide researchers access to the latest literature.

DONORS RENEW SUPPORT

More money is also coming in to support African universities from outside sources. For years, say education specialists, donors placed more emphasis on improving primary and secondary education than on university education.

Education specialists note that in 1989, World Bank spending to Africa’s universities dropped from 17 percent of the Bank’s education budget to just seven percent. Accompanying the change of donor interest away from higher education, Africa’s enrollments dropped, as did its academic research.

But today, donor support for universities is on the rise. Donors have realized that higher education can contribute to development with better employment prospects, higher salaries, greater tax revenues, and improved governance.

NEW STATE REVENUES FOUND

National governments are also working to find new revenues for higher education.

For example, Sawyerr said that in Ghana, "the government set up an Education Trust Fund that drew from the national tax revenue – two percent or so of [value added tax], which then formed a trust fund. Drawing this fund, for the first time in decades the government is able to build structure and provide other infrastructure and equipment to universities in Ghana. So I can say is that many governments are putting more money into closing the gap between resources and numbers."

In addition, he says Ethiopia is using its tax revenues to build new universities in each of its provinces. It’s also breaking from the tradition of using a European language as the primary mode of instruction. Instead, it is including one of its most widely spoken languages, Amharic, as a language of instruction in its courses.

Rwanda, meanwhile, is making an effort to stimulate development. it has built its first public technological institute, the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management. It aims to create highly skilled work force and to provide technical assistance and service to all sections of the community.

In Uganda, Makerere University has introduced new curricula that encourages students in public health to use their knowledge in community projects.

AFRICANS HELPING AFRICANS

Outside organizations are also helping bring financial and other support to Africa’s institutions of higher learning.

One is the Association of African Universities, headed by Professor Sawyerr. He says one of the problems facing the continent’s research centers is their isolation not only from the outside world, but also from each other.

In an effort to improve the situation, he said the AAU is promoting research and educational networking with the help of ITC, and trying to capitalize on the knowledge of the Diaspora.

He said past efforts to move Africans back to the continent have had mixed results. He says it’s expensive to move them and pay them good salaries. On the other hand, he says a cheaper way is to convince professionals in the West to spend a couple of weeks, for example, teaching at the university for free. They could do it when they were home during the holidays to visit family.

He said, "There are several experts abroad who spend a vacation at home. While I was at the University of Ghana as vice chancellor I arranged for the top medical people when they came back to give up two or three weeks of their time to teach at the medical school. The faculty at the school and the students found the short visits of these people uplifting."

"It does not mean major change or expenditure – just the networking to make it happen. In my example, you pay them nothing – they‘re coming home on vacation anyway."

WORLD BANK AS FACILITATOR

The World Bank is working to encourage African governments and donors to increase funding to for African education.

A senior education specialist in the Bank’s African Human Development Department, Peter Materu, said it’s also working to improve the relationship between universities and employers:

"Many employers are saying it’s not only the disciplinary knowledge that’s needed but soft skills like communication, team work, and flexibility to adjust to new situations in today’s labor market. They say the traditional way of learning did not emphasize this enough. "

The World Bank has also worked to improve curriculum over the past year at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. Materu said reforms there helped reach students who were having a hard time finishing school.

The Bank is also working with African universities to introduce mechanisms to monitor quality. And it’s implementing a study that will invite an international advisory panel to suggest how the Bank and donors can work together to help transform Africa’s universities into mechanisms of support for economic growth.

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