WASHINGTON, April 24, 2010—Higher education should play a critical catalytic role in Africa’s economic growth, according to African policy makers and experts from the public and private sectors gathered today at a crowded seminar held under the umbrella of the World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings.
“We have made a lot of progress on primary education, but we can’t stop there,” said Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for Africa. “Africa’s population is seeing a ‘youth bulge’, and so we simply cannot avoid tertiary education—it has to be the bedrock of Africa’s development.”
Ezekwesili, herself a former education minister from Nigeria, highlighted some of the challenges in expanding higher education in Africa. These include the need to strike a balance between democratization of access to higher education and the quality of education provided; and to ensure that higher education turns out graduates with the right skills for the job market.
“We cannot continue business as usual—education must meet the needs of the economy,” she said. Africa urgently needs doctors, nurses, agriculturists, engineers, administrators, lawyers, and business leaders, according to Christopher Thomas, who manages World Bank education projects and analysis in Africa. Yet higher education faces financing constraints, and graduates often remain unemployed.
“There are no easy answers to the question of how Africa’s higher education institutions can grow and thrive,” said Thomas. “But we do know that good policies, strong political will, resources, leadership, and public-private partnerships are necessary.”
Ministers of education from Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, who remained at work late into the evening in their countries to join the seminar remotely, all agreed that the basic issue was that all countries needed a base of human resources, although needs varied in each country.
“In the Gambia, we went for thirty years after independence without a university,” said Mamadou Tangara, Gambia’s Minister of Education. “We are facing a huge resource gap, and we cannot emphasize enough the role of higher education in development. Higher education policies of today will determine our society of tomorrow.”
Ezekwesili noted that the private sector had a major role in expanding access to higher education in Africa. In Ghana, public universities were at one time so stretched that they had to admit as many as 1,500 students in a single class with no teaching assistants. But with the rise of the private sector, about 50,000 more students were enrolled in universities in Ghana in 2007.
Peter Okebukola, a Nigerian regulator, suggested three other steps to boost enrollment. “We should also think about setting up open and long distance universities, expanding degree programs beyond universities to polytechnics and other non-degree institutions, and encouraging multi-campus universities,” he said. Speaking about quality and relevance, Prof. Teuw Niane, the Rector of Gaston Berger University in Senegal, stressed the importance of professors being adequately qualified to teach students, and of connecting regularly with private companies to make sure that young graduates have more access to employment.
Many participants agreed that students who can afford to pay for higher education should be asked to do so. “Parents and youth must be willing to make some sacrifices,” said Joseph Duffey, of Laureate, a private company that seeks to make higher education affordable and accessible through a global network of partnerships.
“It is clear that sharing costs is fundamental,” said Ezekwesili, “Those who can pay should pay, but there should be a mechanism to help promising students who cannot afford to pay.”
The other side of the coin, according to many participants, is that both public and private institutions need to be more accountable and transparent, offering measurable results to parents and students. For example, information such as the number of their graduates that find jobs within a year of graduating should be available to the public.
Participants also discussed the need for quality assurance and regulation. “Accreditation should measure output but reward innovation,” noted Patrick Awuah, President of Ghana’s Ashesi University. “Accreditation can easily stifle innovation,” he said. “For instance, universities should not be evaluated only on the basis of the paper libraries, but also their electronic libraries.”Boukary Savadogo, Division Chief, Science and Technology Education, at the African Development Bank, emphasized that education must be approached in a holistic way, recognizing the connections between all levels from primary to tertiary.
“Tertiary education is a sine qua non for Africa’s development,” concluded Ezekwesili, “We all recognize the importance of a resurgence of tertiary education in Africa.”