Reshaping the higher education sector

Higher education in Africa has registered impressive growth in the last two decades. The number of institutions has increased and the existing ones expanded. Student enrollments have sky-rocketed, constraining available infrastructure, resources and staff.

The dominant role public universities played in the initial decades of independence, has been breached with the entry of private universities and colleges into the arena. With this expansion came issues of access and equity, financing, relevance of curriculum offerings, quality and a decline of research capacity and output.

However, the capacity of most African states to articulate policies and strategies for reforms and to implement them is often lacking. A number of countries on the continent are currently termed fragile or failed states, meaning they have a limited capacity to drive their development agenda, let alone scientific and technological innovations. In fact, in some of the countries, governance institutions are so fragile that democratization and the implementation of socio-economic reforms are stymied, thereby breeding instability and violations of human rights.

Higher education has to transform

Yet, the importance of transforming tertiary institutions cannot be over emphasized.

Quality and diversified tertiary education and training strongly oriented towards the acquisition of knowledge, reinforcement of critical skills and competences for utilization of scientific and technological know-how is indispensable. This is a prerequisite for repositioning and  integrating Africa into the global knowledge economy.

The development of regional institutions and infrastructure would bring economies of scale and unleash major economic benefits. The revival of existing regional economic entities (COMESA, EAC, ECOWAS, IGAD, SADC, etc) is encouraging, but a great deal of work is needed to bring about desired benefits of integration.

There is also need to cultivate creatively the articulation of quality learner-centered education between of lower levels of education and the tertiary education. And in particular ensure continuity and advancement in preparation of learners at lower levels of education and training for their success in acquiring appropriate skills in tertiary level education and training.

Globalisation necessitates change

There is a need to cultivate solid partnerships between public and private sector in the development of science and technology tertiary education. This is critical for mobilizing resources and the synergy that is required for upgrading science education, the quality and relevance of teaching and learning, and support research that is geared towards the generation, dissemination and utilization of new knowledge and innovations for development.

There is increasing realization globally of the importance of close collaboration and cooperation between countries through sharing of resources and technologies, addressing common problems, and facilitating the free movement of people.

Increased cooperation through trade and services has resulted in a corresponding need for education systems to be adapted to respond to the demands for trained people with recognized qualifications who are able and ready to move and serve in any part of the world.

Finally, the integration of occupational skills development (generic and specific skills) at all levels of learning, education and training is necessary. This is to ensure a critical mass of workers and entrepreneurs who are open to innovation and technology and able to improve productivity and work organization.

In this way value is added to the economy to transform current subsistence economies into high-growth economies and enhance youth employability and employment (agricultural revolution and modernization of the informal sector which is currently prevalent in African economies).

All education cycles to be aligned

Africa needs to look critically at how its youth and adults aquire and apply knowledge, skills and competences in sciences and technology. The imperatives are therefore to align its education and training systems from the earliest stages to higher education, into a lifelong process of acquisition of critical scientific and technological skills. While teaching and learning of scientific and technological skills in the first and second cycles of education is fundamental to participation in the global knowledge economy, the development of higher education assumes an increasingly pivotal role.

* Khadija Khoudari is an education programme officer for the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)