By Edwin Naidu
It is time for higher education institutions throughout the African continent to move out of their ivory towers and focus on excellence by producing research that impacts communities, said Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary-general of the Association of African Universities (AAU).
“We need a new kind of thinking – thinking that makes us consider how to respond to the challenges facing society and how universities can better help to tackle these challenges,” he told University World News during an interview on the side-lines of the Science Granting Councils Initiative regional meeting in Uganda on 21 June, also looking ahead to the 22nd Conference of Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities (COREVIP) that will take place in Windhoek, Namibia from 4-7 July.
Mindful of the challenges facing society in general, including poverty and underdevelopment, Oyewole said the tertiary sector was in a bind brought on by phenomenal growth over the past few decades that has been creating opportunities for millions of students and has built capacities for social and economic advancement. But the sector, with an estimated 20 million students on the continent, must scale up, as the enrolment rate remains in single digits in many countries.
Critically, Oyewole, based with the AAU in Accra, Ghana, said that the massive expansion of the higher education sector in Africa has yet to be matched with the required resources. As a result, it is battling to address a deficit in access, equity, quality and excellence and needs to scale up and diversify sources of funding.
As the key to advancing excellence and quality in higher education, the sector must deliberate on how African countries and their higher education institutions must navigate the chronic challenges of financing the sector in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the global economic, social and political upheavals.
A major bugbear for the professor is excellence, and the need to pursue it, in particular during the expansion, which has led to numerous nagging issues pertaining to quality and excellence.
Despite a massive financial injection, the tertiary education sector on the continent remains one of the most, if not the most, financially challenged in the world, with implications on every facet of the higher education landscape.
“As a consequence, the narrative on African higher education has been disproportionately exhibited in a deficit mode, typically highlighting it in a crisis and defective mode – permanently,” he said.
According to Oyewole, this phenomenon has relentlessly pushed the debates and dialogues to focus on challenges and problems instead of focusing on what has been achieved so far and dampening the opportunities for success and excellence.
And yet, despite the challenges and issues that have confronted the sector, some pockets of excellence – typically at the institutional or departmental level – have been well recorded. Some meagre body of knowledge, experience and perspectives on how these entities that have overcome – and even thrived – exist, creating an opportunity for a more nuanced narrative in advancing African higher education.
Among the critical challenges facing higher education on the continent, for example, is the massive expansion throughout the continent of doctoral education – and its role in advancing excellence cannot be over-emphasised – along with the hurdles around institutional differentiation and the need for robust dialogue around recalibration of the institutional mission, all of which will be on the agenda in Namibia next week.
The AAU has been organising the conference in collaboration with the University of Namibia under the theme ‘Advancing Excellence in African Higher Education’.
Practical interventions envisaged
High on the agenda will be a debate around exploring the challenges of promoting internationalisation, for instance: rankings and academic partnerships and advancing relevant and appropriate approaches to foster it. While identifying the impediments, Oyewole hopes the conference will propose relevant and practical interventions to address them.
One of the eagerly anticipated unveilings at the conference is the Africa Charter for transformative research collaborations: an initiative by the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC), University of Bristol, in partnership with the University of South Africa’s, Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair and the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), which developed a charter for transformative research collaborations with Africa that will advance and uphold the continent’s contribution to the global production of knowledge.
The initiative is a joint endeavour of Africa’s foremost higher education bodies and networks, including the AAU, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, the Association of West African Universities, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, and the African Academy of Sciences.
The charter will be launched on 5 July in Windhoek.
Inevitably, the issues around funding will dominate. Still, Oyewole says there will also be room for debate and discussion on the role of intellectual diaspora, mainly because of Africa’s substantial untapped capital.
He said the intellectual diaspora’s human, financial and technical potential in advancing African higher education had been well recognised, with the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s African Diaspora initiative advancing higher education in the continent through the diaspora being one case in point.
Based on the lessons learned and experiences acquired – from such organisationally supported and privately steered initiatives – the conference will vigorously explore this emerging trend in advancing excellence in African higher education.
One of the sessions will focus on Youth Mobility for Africa – a flagship initiative under the Global Gateway Africa – Europe Investment Package chaired by Oyewole and presented by Gosia Lachut, the deputy head of mission of the European Union’s delegation in Namibia, Vice-Chancellor Dr Erold Naomab of Namibia University of Science and Technology and Eveliina Anteroinen, the programme coordinator at the Finnish Embassy in Namibia.
“I’m looking forward to stimulating debate putting excellence at the heart of our goals,” said Oyewole.
This was published on the University World News Africa site.