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Higher Education and Africa’s Social and Political Progress

Remarks at the Summit: Revitalizing higher education for Africa’s Future.


Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your kind welcome. It is a pleasure to join you for these important discussions; as Mr. Gregorian indicated in his message, I have long been a believer in the transformative power of education.

As Nelson Mandela used to say, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Education is one of the most effective forms of peacebuilding, a source of hope for each individual, and the premise of development and progress in every society. This makes our discussions all the more relevant and timely for Africa’s potential for progress has rarely been higher.

In recent years, Africa’s impressive economic growth has seen foreign investment and business flock to the continent, where an expanding middle class and a young, entrepreneurial population is helping to propel growth. But as the commodities “super-cycle” that has afforded Africa close to fifteen years of strong economic growth comes to an end, we will have to rely more on our human resources than on our natural resources. The good news is that they are just as plentiful.

Yet we cannot truly realise Africa’s potential, nor overcome its serious challenges, without increasing access to, improving the quality and diversity of skills taught, and deepening the research capacity of Africa’s higher education. I serve as the Chancellor of the University of Ghana, and therefore see at first hand the scope and complexity of this challenge. I know too, that what works in Accra may not work in Cape Town, Nairobi, or indeed Dakar.

So I hesitate to be overly prescriptive in my remarks today. Rather, I would like to identify three broad priorities which I believe should guide the revitalization of African higher education. First, we must harness the power of partnerships. The diversity of the audience today suggests that I may be preaching to the choir.

Nonetheless, allow to me highlight some specific benefits of effective partnerships between African universities, with governments and the private sector, and with universities and research institutions across the world. Attention has long focused on achieving universal primary education, and to a lesser degree, on improving secondary enrollment. With youth illiteracy still at around 50%, and even higher for girls, we all agree this continues to be vital.

But the time has come to also revitalize higher education in Africa. This will necessitate strategic alliances with, and investment from, international partners and donors. Partnerships with the private sector can overcome the mismatch between the needs of African employers and the skills of its young graduates. Otherwise, university degrees will not secure the jobs graduates expect, and that is a recipe for social and political, as well as economic trouble.

Africa is full of unemployed university graduates, even as our economies have grown by more than 5% for over a decade. Clearly they were not given the skills that our economies need. One of the problems is that university courses were traditionally designed to train academics, civil servants and employees in the formal economy, whilst our countries have been shedding civil service jobs and our econonomies remain largely informal.

Our institutions of higher learning have to reflect these changes and teach the technical and entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed in the real world. As you may know, Switzerland has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world despite having a smaller proportion of university graduates than other developed countries.

That is largely because Swiss tertiary education focuses more on high-level vocational schools in hotel management, engineering, IT, health and agriculture whose graduates are immediately employable. This is a model other European countries are looking at now to address their own unemployment problems. Perhaps Africa should also consider its relevance.

The shortage of funding is also hampering attempts by individual universities or research institutions to become globally recognized leaders in their field. However, through cooperation between African governments and universities, the continent can build regional centers of excellence that improve both the quality of research and education, and their impact throughout Africa.

Many of the continent’s brightest young prospects feel they must leave Africa to further their studies, to publish or be mentored, and to develop personal expertise. Reversing this tide is, I know, a significant concern for all of us here today. But we must also recognize, and take advantage of, the opportunities it presents in the short-term.

Closer ties with the universities and institutions abroad can increase capacity in African universities, and widen access to education in Africa and abroad. Africa has exported some of its brightest minds, as both professors and students. They can tomorrow benefit Africa as much as they benefit their host countries today.

To take advantage of these opportunities, the University of Ghana and University of Sussex recently agreed to collaborate on joint teaching and research programs, facilitate student and staff exchanges, and jointly train and develop doctoral students. This is an approach many universities on the continent are developing, which I think could allow us to develop world class research-intensive universities, to generate the knowledge both governments and businesses need to succeed in Africa and globally.

My second priority is to improve the scope and quality of data from and on Africa. This may seem like an obscure technical issue. However, evidence-based research is fundamental to sound policy-making. This research ought to be generated by Africa’s own institutions of higher learning and its burgeoning home-grown think tanks.

To grasp the importance of statistics for effective government it is useful to remember that the very word – statistics – comes from the German word for the state – der Staat. Governing without data is like driving without a dash board. Let me offer two personal examples to underline this need. When the Africa Progress Panel, which I chair, decided to study the impact of climate change on African agriculture for its 2015 Report, we had to turn to think tanks, development agencies, researchers and universities based mainly in Europe and North America.

In a similar vein, the response to the Ebola outbreak revealed the lack of attention and resources dedicated to understanding potentially pandemic viruses in Africa, and how this significantly hampered our response. There is a very clear need for more, and improved, empirical understanding of how such challenges affect the continent and how its leaders can best react

I have no doubt that such targeted and applied research can have a wide impact, from better governance, to increased productivity and more jobs for our youth. Third and finally, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to highlight a less tangible, but profound, manner in which universities and institutions of higher learning can significantly impact Africa’s development.

As important as the skills conferred or the knowledge generated at an institution of learning are, it is the outlook and attitude that higher education fosters in its students which is vital to national development and self-confidence. The demonstrations of angry young men and women across the continent reveal the frustration of our youth with the status-quo, and their willingness to assume the responsibilities of leadership. But it is clear too, that they are not always well  prepared

No one is born a good citizen or a good democrat or a good leader; it takes time and education.

Our institutions should instill in Africa’s young citizens a mindset and understanding of the world that inspires visionary and positive citizenship and leadership. They must therefore be melting-pots of diversity and incubators of pluralism which produce responsible citizens.

They can build bridges between communities of young people in Africa, eroding the ethnic and religious divides that still plague the continent. And perhaps most importantly, they can promote the informed and peaceful confrontation of ideas, crucial to academic study and research, but also to deepening democratic governance, and building peace.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have long maintained that healthy and sustainable societies are built on three pillars; peace and security, sustainable development, and respect for Human Rights and the rule of law. There can be no long-term security without development, no long term development with security, and no society can long remain prosperous without respect for human rights and the rule of law.

But a well- educated, informed and engaged citizenry is the foundation on which these three pillars rest. I hope you agree that these principles can further strengthen that foundation. But I am sure too, that this expert audience will contribute many interesting and insightful ideas.

I look forward therefore to the outcome of your discussions, and to seeing your vision of a revitalised higher education system that can drive Africa’s progress in the 21st century.