Six of the richest private foundations in the United States have announced a $200 million commitment to strengthen higher education in seven African nations.

The members of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa say the commitment is a recognition of a "quiet revolution" in Africa, where universities are playing an increasing role in innovation and training.

Speaking at the formal announcement ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said no single institution can meet the urgent needs of higher education in Africa on its own.

"We need to train teachers and build up research capacity. We need to strengthen open universities and distance-learning programs and we need to ensure that African institutions have access to the latest technologies, including improved online access to data bases, libraries and journals," said Mr. Annan. "Women and poor people still face too many obstacles on their parts to higher education. The AIDS epidemic is having a terrible impact, taking the lives of qualified instructors and researchers, and the brain drain continues to create situations in which the developing world's leading researchers win prizes for research conducted in the west, but not at home."

The $200 million commitment is a renewal of a $150 million commitment made five years ago by the Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations, and the Carnegie Corporation to universities in nations undergoing reform. Now the Mellon and Hewlett foundations have joined the effort.

Ghana's president, John Agyekum Kufuor, says limited resources, and a population explosion are preventing the nations involved - Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda from achieving the educational goals so they can become players in the global economy.

"Another problem afflicting higher education is the brain drain of faculty to the more advanced parts of the world," said Mr. Kufuor. "The striking feature of this challenge is that because of poor conditions of service, faculty is not able to attract young lecturers."

Many of the projects supported by the foundations focus on improving access to high technology. Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation says high costs have been a major factor in inhibiting African universities. "Many African universities, and this is a stunning statistic, pay as much as 10 times what institutions would pay in the United States for similar services," said Ms. Rodin. "Over the next three years, our foundations and universities themselves will invest millions of dollars more to increase bandwidth nearly eightfold at dozens of universities throughout Africa and more will join this consortium. Internet connectivity as we know is an important component of participation in today's global economy. So universities in Africa will become the centerpiece of this connectivity, the center of connecting to the global marketplace of ideas and power."

The foundation partners say they expect African universities to reemerge as critical engines for economic, social and development change, including unprecedented opportunities for African women, which will expand the continent's human resource pool.