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No one doubts that, as the Commission for Africa has just emphasised, stronger universities are needed across the African continent. The challenge is to create credible plans for achieving this — and then 'sell' them to potential donors.

When the international Commission for Africa presented its report at the end of last week, its most widely publicised main conclusions were relatively predictable — and, to that extent, unremarkable. On the one hand, for example, the commission, set up by British Prime Minister Tony Blair almost exactly a year ago, urged a massive increase in aid from the developed countries. On the other, it made equally strong demands on African governments themselves to develop the capacity to use this aid effectively.

The very familiarity of such conclusions has led to widespread criticism of the report as offering just "more of the same". This criticism, however, is unfair. Certainly there are few imaginative new proposals (apart from those on aid finance, which had already been widely discussed beforehand). And this alone has been a disappointment to some.

But the report was never intended to be seen as a blueprint for a radical transformation of development philosophy either in Africa, or in those organisations and political institutions seeking to help the continent from the outside. Rather, it provides a valuable guide to emerging initiatives that require nurturing and sustaining. Indeed, one of the main functions of the report is to help build a political consensus around Africa's real needs in a way that can be endorsed by the leaders of the world's industrialised nations when they hold their annual meeting, the G8 summit, which this year takes place in Scotland in July.

High among such issues are the commission's recommendations on the need to promote the growth of the higher education sector. These are based on the argument that Africa's universities have a central, and often unrecognised, role to play in the social and economic development of the continent (see Science capacity 'imperative' for Africa's development). Or, as the commission puts it, that "African universities ought to be the breeding ground for the skilled individuals whom the continent needs".

A bleak situation

The plight of African universities over the past two decades has become increasingly bleak. On the one hand, as in many developed countries, political commitments to broaden access to higher education has led to a dramatic increased in students numbers. According to one estimate, for example, the number of students attending universities across the continent grew from 1.5 million in 1980 to almost three times that figure only 15 years later.

This expansion, however, has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in resources. In fact, rather the reverse. During the 1980s and 1990s, many national and international aid organisations (including most tellingly the World Bank) significantly reduced — in some case eliminated — their support for universities. One excuse for doing so was that, since the individuals taking university courses were expected to benefit personally, they should make a substantial contribution towards the cost of university tuition. Another was that the greatest area of educational need — seen in terms of eliminating poverty — was considered to be at the primary, not the tertiary, level.

Whatever the history, the result has been that the facilities of African universities have been deteriorating rapidly as a result of this combination of increased usage and declining funding. And this has caught them in a vicious spiral. Teaching loads, for example, have increased at the same time as academic salaries in many African countries have decreased, both reducing the attraction of university teaching as a career. In turn, one of the consequences of this has been a reduced output of well-trained science teachers, which itself has become responsible for declining standards of science teaching in schools.

Research has been even more badly hit. In many countries, domestic research funding has virtually disappeared. Frequently this has left donor agencies as the only potential source of research support. Spending on infrastructure (such as university libraries and research equipment) has almost dried up. And many university teachers have been driven to supplement their salaries through outside work, leaving them little time to pursue research interests.

A renewed interest

Some donor agencies, such as the department for research cooperation of Sweden's International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida/SAREC), have been attempting to stem the haemorrhaging from African universities for several decades. Others (such as the World Bank) have now come round to realising that they have been neglecting the area too much in recent years. This has particularly been the case as awareness has grown of the importance of capacity building in science and technology to meet the challenges of economic growth – and the critical contribution that universities can make to the process.

The real significance of the statements being made by the Commission for Africa is not that they provide novel insights. Rather, they help prepare the stage for endorsements of such moves at the highest political level in the developed world (such as the G8 summit). The importance of universities to developing countries needs to be universally recognised; if the commission's report, through its endorsement at the G8 summit, helps to achieve this, it will have been a major contribution.

At the same time, however, three issues need to be directly confronted by those seeking to convert political commitments into practice. The first is that such efforts need to recognise that the nature of the modern university is changing. Today's universities can no longer afford to act as the 'ivory towers' of the past; rather they need to be engaged in all aspects of the society in which they are embedded (see, for example, Can Africa pioneer a new way of doing science?).

A second need, however, is to acknowledge that universities and their staff and research activities cannot, and should not, be reduced to passive instruments of society (and even less, to servants of economic systems). Even within the new models of higher education currently being explored, it is essential that adequate space be maintained for the creative and independent thinking that universities have traditionally preserved, across all domains of the arts and sciences.

Thirdly, the focus of policy needs to be on strengthening and remodelling existing institutions, not the creation of new ones. Too often, the latter strategy has offered an easy way around the difficult political and human problems inevitably raised in trying to increase the effectiveness of a badly-functioning institution. Yet unless the need for a new start can be clearly demonstrated, the result can be a disastrous waste of resources.

Indeed, many African countries are littered with the shells — if not carcasses — of teaching and research institutions created in a flush of post-colonial optimism. These have frequently been abandoned when became clear that the reasons for their creation had not been examined in sufficient detail, and thus the argument for their continued funding, particularly at a time of cutbacks in government spending, had evaporated.

The need to remain wary of proposals for new institutions applies particularly to the concept espoused by the Africa Commission of creating dedicated institutes of science and technology. If these can be developed out of existing institutions, drawing on their experience and contacts, and embedding themselves in both local and regional needs, they could make an enormous and cost-effective impact. But if they become glass shrines isolated from the real world, both geographically and intellectually, they risk becoming as irrelevant as the extravagant ornate palaces that too many African leaders continue to believe are essential for the management of their countries.

Hopes for the future

The good news is that the prospects for a new African renaissance in the higher education sector are brighter than they have been for several decades. At one end, African universities themselves are realising the need for collaboration and joint planning, in areas ranging from courses on university administration to training in research management. The African Association of Universities, for example, has been working with the Association of Commonwealth Universities in putting forward a ten-year investment plan that, providing sufficient funding is forthcoming, could address many of the issues identified above.

Complementing these moves have been initiatives originating from the donors. The most significant of these, perhaps, has been a collaboration between four major US foundations — the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation — to pursue a joint programme aimed at achieving what is described as "a resurgence in commitment to higher education in Africa". And other funding agencies, including the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the African Capacity Building Foundation, shown an increasing willingness to participate in similar efforts.

Finally, it is good to see the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) taking an active role in promoting both debate and action around these issues on the African continent. Too often in the past, the UN body's interest in higher education has extended little further than high-level ministerial and 'expert' conferences in Paris. Shifting to a ground-based strategy, based on real needs as determined by African nations themselves, can only benefit all sides.

All this, however, will require money. Which is where the politicians come in. The sum of US$500 million a year over ten years proposed by the Commission for Africa, may sound a lot on paper. But it needs to be placed in context (and could be compared, for example, to the annual US$1.8 billion budget of the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Those truly committed to Africa's development must recognise that, within the higher education sector, not only have a set of critical needs been identified, but that a parallel set of realistic projects are under development by which these needs can be met — and that investment in such projects makes as much sense (indeed perhaps even more) as it does in the developed world. The case for more 'joined-up thinking' in this area could not be clearer.

Link to African science community responds to commission report

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