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Six major US foundations have pledged US$200 million to strengthen higher education institutions in seven African countries.

The money will be spent over the next five years in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Part of the initiative is an effort to dramatically increase access to the Internet in universities there.

The commitment signals the re-launch of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, set up in 2000 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller Foundations.

Announcing the pledge on 16 September, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said: "We need to train teachers and build up research capacity; we need to strengthen open universities and distance learning programmes; and we need to ensure that African institutions have access to the latest technologies."

Among the problems facing African universities is their lack of Internet access and the low bandwidth of the few Internet connections they do have — the lower the bandwidth, the slower the flow of data across the connection (see Bandwidth will speed African universities' progress).

According to a report by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, consumers in Europe and North America pay about US$100 a month for far more bandwidth than African universities obtain for US$10,000 per month.

However thanks to a deal with the satellite operator Intelsat, US$5 million of the money pledged last week will be used to provide a group of 11 universities with an eight-fold increase in bandwidth at less than one-third of the current price.

"When African universities have the capacity to connect with the Internet at speeds approaching those available to others around the world, we will have taken one of the most important steps possible in our efforts to become full members of the world's academic community," said Mamman Aminu Ibrahim, convenor of the Nigeria ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Forum of Partnership Institutions.

Other efforts the partnership will fund include training lecturers and researchers, increasing the participation of women in higher education, and providing equipment needed to build institutions' capacity for teaching and research.

"African universities that combine excellent, world-class education with programmes of practical training are vital to progress, and it is heartening to see them emerge," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "Technology is an essential bridge to that progress and development."

The partnership has already invested US$150 million in African universities over the past five years. Its re-launch marks the addition of the William and Flora Hewlett and the Andrew Mellon Foundations as donors, and Kenya as the seventh recipient nation.