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[NAIROBI] International donors should invest more in Africa's universities because of the important role they could play in alleviating poverty, according to a study commissioned by the World Bank.

The report, published last month, calls for donors to reverse their neglect of the higher education sector. It says wider access to university education would give many Africans a better life and stimulate economic development.

Lead author David Bloom, an economist at Harvard University, United States, says African countries lack the skilled personnel they need to compete in the global knowledge-based economy.

He says about 50,000 Africans with postgraduate degrees — mostly doctors, engineers and scientists — work abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

The report says higher education in Africa has suffered because of a widespread — and misguided — belief among donors that improving education at school level, rather than in universities, was key to promoting economic growth in developing countries. 

From 1985 to 1989, for instance, 17 per cent of the World Bank's global spending on the education sector went towards higher education, but from 1995 to 1999, this had declined to seven per cent.

Crispus Kiamba, permanent secretary to Kenya's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, says Kenya's public universities have not had major donor support for 25 years.

"Beliefs that higher education magnifies social inequalities led to reduced donor and government support for universities at a time when enrolment levels were rising," says Kiamba, who until recently led Kenya's Commission for Higher Education.

He adds that poor funding and a lack of political support have led to a governance crisis in most African universities, triggering staff instability and student unrest.

"The situation has ultimately undermined the institutions' capacity to educate and train personnel," says Kiamba.

The report notes, for instance, that sub-Saharan Africa has just one scientist or engineer for every 10,000 people, compared to one for every 200-500 in industrialised countries.

The report's authors point to evidence from Taiwan "that science and engineering courses are the most useful for promoting development", and call for more research to see if this applies across the developing world.

William Saint, a higher education specialist at the World Bank, says the era of neglect is over, as the "role of higher education everywhere has been validated, affirmed and recognised".

Link to full report