Re-evaluating African higher education

What constitutes African higher education? Does it involve a European-like system? What challenges and opportunities is it facing?  How should European higher education institutions (HEIs) interact with African HEIs? In December 2013, a special event is taking place in Brussels discussing these very questions. The seminar, ‘For mutual gain: Euro-African cooperation in higher education’ focussed specifically on cooperation between European and African HEIs.

This piece by Stefan Wellens, originally produced in November 2013 and published in the European Association for International Education still resonates nearly 6 years on.

Support for African higher education is critical

Africa still faces development challenges on many fronts. Providing support to improve higher education is a critical component and cannot be ignored. Higher education is indispensable for economic long-term development of Africa. Higher education provides social benefits, both to the individual and the public, produces qualified human capital, generates knowledge, promotes international cooperation and improves competitiveness in the global knowledge based economy. This has been stated by the World Bank since more than two decades, and continues to be emphasised.

The final communiqué of the last UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE) that took place in Paris stated “At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity”. The communiqué stressed that “higher education must pursue the goals of equity, relevance and quality simultaneously”.

In recognition of the troubled state of higher education in Africa, the conference held a special session on the region’s higher education. Participants underlined “the urgency for the adoption of new dynamics in African higher education that work towards a comprehensive transformation to sharply enhance its relevance and responsiveness to the political, social and economic realities of African countries”.

Europe’s role in African higher education

So what’s in it for Europe? Are we talking about a moral obligation to assist Africa? The European Union has shown much attention and invested a lot of resources in higher education cooperation between Europe and Africa, not only on the basis of moral/development principles, but also for valid geostrategic reasons. The EU has interests in reaching out to the world. The word ‘interest’ is not to be connoted negatively however; in order for the Old Continent to not become obsolete, it has to reinvent itself, and this is not done in splendid isolation.

However, let’s not forget that it’s not only the EU we’re talking about when speaking of ‘Europe’. Cooperation in higher education is to be approached from various sides and on multiple levels. National and subnational schemes for cooperation and exchange exist, as well as bilateral arrangements between individual institutions. Both top-down and bottom-up initiatives have their own merits.

We should also emphasise that we’re not talking about ‘aid’ either, but about sharing knowledge. When speaking of linking up with African higher education institutions, we’re not talking about a one-way street. It’s about investing both in the future of the African partner, as well as in the future of the institution in the global North, and, albeit indirectly, in global development. That’s where our shared interests and objectives lie. We can – and must – learn from each other. By nature, the triple mandate of higher education (education, research, service to society/innovation) serves today’s and tomorrow’s global challenges that affect us all. We may have to ‘think globally and act locally’ but on the basis of commonly shared interests and objectives. We’re not talking about competition, we’re talking about cooperation for mutual benefit.

18 November 2013By STEFAN WELLENS

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