Source: Department of Higher Education and Training
Title: SA: Nzimande: Address by the Minister of Higher Education and Training at the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, Paris
Chairpersons, Ahlin Byll-Cataria and Georges Haddad
Prime Minister of Namibia, Mr Nahas Angula
Fellow Ministers of Education present
Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura
Director of UNESCO's Division of Higher Education, Mr Georges Haddad
Ladies and gentlemen
Promoting excellence to accelerate Africa's development, towards an African Higher Education and Research Area
It is a great honour for me to be speaking on behalf of the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF) at this conference. Let me also extend my gratitude to fellow COMEDAF, colleagues for the good work they have been doing in advancing the interests of higher education in Africa.
As you may be aware, the COMEDAF is held every two years and brings together Ministers of Education from 53 member states of the African Union and their role players. It is currently chaired by South Africa.
In 1996 the African Union declared the first decade of education, which was evaluated in 2006. Many of the targets were not met. The second decade of education, which began 2006, was accompanied by the development of a Plan of Action which was launched in September 2006 in Maputo. The second decade of education plan of action is thus considered the blueprint for the education agenda on the continent. It identified seven key priority areas including tertiary education. Higher education has undergone unprecedented changes in the last two decades as characterised by:
* Expanded student enrolments that previously had limited or no access to higher education
* Rapid increase in the number of both post secondary education institutions with powers to grant degrees
* Stagnated or limited government funding due to lack of capacity to support the expanded higher education system
* Internationalisation/and globalisation.
These changes have had differential impacts on higher education systems in Africa as a result of limited resources to respond to these challenges.
I would like now theme to highlight some of the critical issues that the African continent continues to confront in the higher education sector. Some of these issues are key priority areas set out in the second decade of education (2006-2015) action plan by the Ministers of Education of the African Union, and they include the following:
Relations of knowledge production
Although progress has been made in HE provision in Africa, it is obvious that over the last few decades some things have not changed. There has been no significant break in relations of knowledge production between the colonial and post-colonial eras. African universities are essentially consumers of knowledge produced in developed countries.
In essence what is being defined as knowledge society means two different things to the developed world and the African continent. The former are the producers and the latter are the consumers of knowledge, which seriously undermines the fostering of the multicultural nature of higher education, as virtually all partnerships are one, sided.
This is not only negative for the African continent, but it also deprives global higher education of access to the indigenous knowledge of Africa, and it deprives Africans of the opportunity to develop their indigenous knowledge system and strengthen their relationship to western and eastern knowledge systems. This is the nub of the challenge, against which we need to tackle the challenges outlined in the rest of this speech.
Access to higher education
For decades, access to higher education has been a challenge in many African countries. Although many countries have witnessed some improvements, on average, the continent still lags far behind developed countries. The Organisations for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) South African country study of 2008 indicated that the median participation rate for sub-Saharan Africa is 2.5 percent compared to the developing country median of 13 percent and the industrialised country median of 58 percent.
What is encouraging is that despite the low participation rate, in recent years, Africa has been witnessing one of the highest growth rates in enrolments in the world. According to a report presented last year to African Ministers of Finance, enrolments in African universities tripled between 1991 and 2005, expanding at an annual rate of 8.7 percent. But this is now under threat because of the current economic crisis. Both African states and donors need to be vigilant about this, and UNESCO has a role to play in monitoring this situation.
By the way we need to remind delegates that the World Bank's discouragement of investment into higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had serious negative implications for this sector. This focus on basic education did have some successes. Ironically one result has been a huge demand for space into higher education institutions and consequent pressure on staffing, infrastructure, resources, etc. The lesson from this is that we need to approach education in a holistic manner.
The enormous pressure for access into higher education has led to massive growth of private higher education of variable quality. The challenge here is building the capacity of African states to regulate and ensure that such institutions are of appropriate standards. This is one area where South Africa for instance has had some success and we are happy to share our experiences with other African countries and indeed with any other country.
There is a gender imbalance throughout higher education systems especially in leadership positions. Currently, leadership in higher education across Africa is dominated by males. Underlying this though is still the deep interconnectedness of racial, ethnic, class and gender inequalities in higher education in our continent. Governments, together with institutions, need to develop mechanisms to tackle these imbalances.
Graduate retention programmes
Part of the outcome of poor access in some African countries has been the enhanced level of internationalisation of higher education, resulting in brain drain in many cases. Far too many students are leaving their home countries to study elsewhere. In 2005, there were about 2.7 million students worldwide studying abroad, an increase from 1.8 million in 2000. A 2007 report by OECD and the World Bank indicates that the majority of these foreign students are from the African continent.
Although also affected, South Africa has generally speaking been a major beneficiary of the movement of students on the continent. Currently, South African higher education institutions enrol about 60 000 international students. More than 80 percent of these students come from the rest of the African continent and especially from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Internationalisation in terms of human resource mobility is good for knowledge and skills transfer. However, it needs to be managed adequately.
One major challenge is that many of the best some students do not return home. We need to be able to retain our graduates within the continent, while at the same time ensuring we attract the best talent from other parts of the world. As a continent, we need to improve conditions of the higher education sector so that we can retain and grow our human resource. UNESCO should also assist us in developing strategies and international protocols in assisting us to retain our skilled professionals.
The other aspect we need to improve, more for some African countries than others, is academic freedom. Governments, through the Ministers of Education, need to begin to take this issue seriously and ensure that academic freedom is guaranteed. However, while it is true that academic freedom is under threat, it must be balanced by accountability. Universities and academics must allowed to do their work freely, but must also realise that they too have the responsibility to account to the public which funds them and which depends on them to contribute towards development, to provide quality teaching and relevant, socially useful research and to participate in community upliftment. Academic freedom should also not be used to undermine social reform imperatives and thus be exercised at the expense of society as a whole. A related danger is that university leaders may use university autonomy to undermine academic freedom within their institutions and this too must be resisted.
Challenge of funding
The level of funding for higher education on the African continent is highly inadequate. A study conducted by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) 2008 highlighted that government spending on higher education varies significantly between countries of the SADC region. This variation is also evident across the continent. Despite some growth in higher education budget in some countries, there is still high demand for funding due to the increase in enrolment rates. Countries are, however, looking at ways to improve funding through other avenues such as increasing the level of funding from the private sector.
In conclusion, I would like to re-iterate that despite the challenges that we still face, Africa will continue to strive for an improved higher education sector through financial investment and any other means to the extent that financial resources allow. In this respect it is essential that the efforts of African governments are complemented by the development of partnerships with other African countries and abroad. In this respect, I welcome the offer made by the Chinese Minister of Education yesterday to increase its partnerships with African countries. We have begun to witness significant improvements in terms of the targets we set for ourselves through the second decade of education plan of action and I am confident that by 2015 we will have accomplished a lot more.