Written by Damtew Teferra Ph.D. Dr. Damtew Teferra wrote the discussion paper on Investment in Higher Education in Africa and led the higher education expert team which developed the background papers in the lead up to the Summit. He is a professor of higher education at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education, Editor of the Chronicle of African Higher Education and the African Higher Education News. He may be reached at teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu

At the just-concluded African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, under the theme of ‘Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future,’ the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Senegalese President, Macky Sall, have pledged to undertake a role of critical importance: lobbying their constituencies for revitalizing higher education at the upcoming head of states meeting in June 2015. This commitment comes at a climax of a concerted drive—by a number of institutions, including the Association of Commonwealth Universities [1], the International Network for Higher Education in Africa [2, 3], and the International Association of Universities [4], among others—to position higher education strategically at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda. As the top African Union diplomat and the President are headed to the June meeting to engage their colleagues and situate the dialogue within the 2063 African Union Agenda [5], this editorial attempts to offer some critical “talking points” for the conversation. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the dialogue may also help shape the post-2015 development agenda, which, many worry, may not place higher education centrally—as demonstrated by the three institutions above. The five main points below are the critical concepts:
1. Rate of Return: Africa Now the Global Leader! The abandoned rate-of-return study on higher education has been instrumental in adversely shaping the African higher education sector for decades. It was at this 2015 Summit that the audience discovered from a World Bank representative—with jubilation—that the rate of return on higher education in Africa is not only high but at 21 percent [6], is now the highest in the world! For a few higher education experts at the Summit—who have been at the forefront of the conversation on the rate-of-return debacle [7,8,9], including this author—that official pronouncement was a particularly momentous occasion. Indeed, investing in African higher education is not only important now but more so as it affords the continent a very high competitive edge to its already high and sustained economic growth. Thus, all concerned need to celebrate, articulate, and widely popularize this new and groundbreaking discovery on the role of African higher education. This major finding must be effectively communicated for a paradigm shift targeting political leaders, policy makers, development partners and actors, researchers, and other stakeholders.

2. Raising Higher Education Budgets: No Blanket Appeal Probably no particular issue would be as prominent as funding in the conversation about revitalizing African higher education. Higher education in Africa is still predominantly public (only 25 percent of Africa’s students are currently enrolled in private institutions) and is heavily dependent on government funding—with persistent and massive shortfalls. This is the case even though quite a number of African countries already invest a sizeable portion of their budgets in the higher education sector and thus have limited flexibility to increase it significantly. According to Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia already devote about 18 percent of their national budget to education. Ethiopia is already investing more than a fifth of its national budget in education (about a quarter of it in higher education). Figures for Botswana and South Africa are roughly equivalent [10]. Therefore, appealing to governments for a wholesale massive increase of funding may not have considerable traction. But these countries, and all others, need to be persuaded to foster their fund-raising and revenue diversification capabilities institutionally, nationally, and internationally with comprehensive, strategic, and holistic policies and approaches. 3. Managing Egalitarianism: Enhancing Differentiation Africa has seen phenomenal growth and expansion of its higher education sector in the last decade. As part of a study on eleven leading African universities due to be published this year in a Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact, and Trajectory (working title), an estimated 14 million students currently study in African higher learning institutions [11]. The magnitude of expansion is remarkable in both the “mother” and “sibling” institutions. Governments need to be commended for their direct and indirect intervention including favourable policies and funding, among others. This remarkable massification, however, did not come without considerable challenges, including the reluctance to identify and support select institutions in the strategic interest of fostering national competitiveness. In some countries, this practice is so pervasive that it tends to disregard even the oldest and best-established post-independence institutions which already enjoy national prominence. Increasingly, but troublingly so, many new public institutions are being established in Africa in which crass politics are interlaced with narrow ethnic, religious, and other sectarian lines, among other problems. At times, they function without the most basic of facilities and resources. Such practices and phenomena put immense hurdle in the path of “Africa’s knowledge project.” Thus, the task of lobbying must be pursued with considerable sensitivity and firm persuasion. At the end, an unadulterated egalitarian predisposition that dangerously ignores a country’s existing and potential competitive knowledge advantage, it should be stressed, comes with serious consequences. Therefore, nations should map out their institutional landscape identifying (few) research-intensive, (most) teaching-intensive, and (many) comprehensive institutions, as appropriate. Read more

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