African leaders from government, academia, the private sector, and multilateral organizations issued a road map for the future of higher education on the continent at a historic summit in Dakar, Senegal earlier this month. The African Higher Education Summit, hosted by TrustAfrica and supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and other partners, was called “probably the most important gathering of Africans that will take place this year,” by Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, in her keynote address.
The draft declaration issued by organizers at the end of the conference outlines 16 steps governments and universities need to take to improve higher education in their countries and institutions. Many of the action items are closely aligned with work the Corporation has been engaged in over the past 15 years in helping to improve higher education in Africa. That includes a recognition of the need for more research and collaboration among African universities, in addition to more coordinated engagement with the African Diaspora working in academia worldwide.
“Throughout our engagement in Africa, the Corporation has especially prized its relationships with African universities and scholars,” wrote Corporation President Vartan Gregorian in a prepared statement read to attendees by former United Nations Secretary-General and former Corporation Trustee Kofi Annan. “However, much remains to be done. This is the spirit that has led to this week’s extraordinary gathering. We, along with many African educators, believe that universities are essential tools for the renewal of Africa’s culture, economy, and institutions.”
While there have been great strides in access to higher education across the continent in recent years, Africa still lags far behind the developed world, with about seven percent of the population pursuing higher education, compared to thirty percent worldwide. Africa also puts out far less research. According to conference speakers, less than one percent of academic journal articles come from African institutions of higher education, for example, and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil produces more PhDs annually than all of Africa. One billion dollars per year is spent by governments on higher education in Africa, while experts say closer to fifty billion is needed.
This lack of participation has persisted despite strong economic growth across the continent in recent years. If such growth is to be sustained, more engagement will be needed, Annan said in his summit address. “When [high economic growth] comes to an end, we will have to rely more on our human resources than our natural resources,” he said.
The need for education-fueled development is especially urgent in light of the continent’s demographics. Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with 20 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 24, according to a report in University World News, which covered the conference extensively.
“We need to give hope to Africa’s young people,” said Dlamini-Zuma, who has made access to higher education a key component of the pan-African commission’s long-term development plan, Africa 2063. “People are [our] most precious resource, and we have that in abundance.”
Carnegie Corporation of New York has long shared this view, and has worked closely with its partners in projects like the African Higher Education Centers of Excellence, the African Leadership Centre and the African Diaspora Fellowship Program to help bolster Africa’s human capital.
Mobilization of the Diaspora was announced as one of the core action items in the Summit draft declaration, with the aim of launching an initiative to sponsor 1,000 scholars every year for the next decade. “The diaspora is a huge force. In the United States, there are at least 25,000 African academics working at universities,” Dr. Paul Zeleza, vice president for academic affairs at Quinnipiac University said, according to University World News. The planned initiative is a direct outgrowth of the Corporation’s fellowship program, headed by Dr. Zeleza.
Another key development announced at the summit was the creation of the African Research Universities Alliance. According to Max Price, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witswatersrand, the alliance is based on models in other regions and now comprises 16 African universities. It is expected to draw on African expertise to provide more doctoral training, especially opportunities for women, attract greater funding for research from African sources, and foster greater collaboration among universities.
“The alliance can only be successful if we have the commitment and support from key stakeholders in government, the higher education sector, and local and global funding agencies,” said Habib.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who gave a keynote speech, called on fellow African leaders to dedicate one percent of GDP to research.
“What is clear is that Africa has the political will to carry this summit process forward,” said Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwean minister of education, according to the ICEF Monitor. “I want to assure you that together with my colleagues we will ensure that the core recommendations will be taken up by our governments.”
Robert Nolan is Director of Communications and Content Strategy at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan