African varsities seek international relevance

By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi

Exactly two years after grappling with the problems of graduate unemployment across African countries, in a five-day conference attended by 300 delegates in Libreville, Gabon, about 250 delegates converged on Kigali, Rwanda for five days last June to, this time, deliberate on the “Internationalisation of Higher Education in Africa,” at the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities (COREViP).  The Association of African Universities (AAU) organized the meeting.

Many delegates found the reasons that informed the organization of the conference profound, but some argued that the agenda was not new. There was a consensus, however, that Africa needs a strong higher education sector to bring about its much-anticipated rapid development. The challenge, among others, has been how to evolve a locally relevant and globally attractive higher education sphere.

The conference discussed several issues including how to promote the quality of higher education, mobility and transfers of credit across Africa; improve relevance, learning outcomes, skills, competences and graduate employability.  New teaching and learning methods were also assessed.        Besides, the meeting considered ways through which students and academics from other continents could be sufficiently attracted to Africa, the same way Africans have been attracted to Europe and the Americas. The delegates also evaluated various options on how to bring the continent’s higher education sector up-to-date, to enjoy the fruits of internationalization.

At the 2013 version of COREViP, delegates had expressed serious concerns about the high rate of unemployment among African university graduates, which they found much more serious than was previously thought. They mulled over strategies, to be spearheaded by higher education institutions, to facilitate the reforms needed to tackle identified challenges.

Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof. George Magoha had, on that occasion, asked delegates to ponder over whether African universities were, indeed, producing graduates that could improve the lot of the continent. The AAU’s Secretary General, Prof. Etienne Ehile who shared Magoha’s views, noted that courses being offered by African universities should be aimed at solving the continent’s multifaceted problems, just as he reminded the audience that the AAU had been formed since 1967, after many African countries had gained independence.

In a paper titled “Continental Frameworks, Vision and Perspectives”, the Head, Education Division of the African Union Commission (AUC), Dr Beatrice Njenga, explained that in 2003, the African Union (AU) unveiled a vision of an integrated, peaceful and prosperous Africa, driven by its people, which would take its rightful place in the global community. By 2006, she said, higher education had become a key component of the vision.  Last year, Agenda 2063, aimed at resuscitating the dream was launched. She described the agenda as a call to all Africans and people of African descent to action, to take personal responsibility for the continent’s destiny and be the primary agents for change and transformation.

She listed the agenda’s aspirations as: prosperity and inclusive growth; integration, pan Africanism and Africa renaissance; good governance, democracy, human rights and respect for rule of law; peace and security; strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values; people-driven development; and strong united global player.

Embedded in this agenda, she further explained, were flagship projects captured under an Action Plan, which include five main areas. Under education, there is the Pan African e-university. Under infrastructure – connecting Africa (the railway project). Under energy – the Inga project. Under Trade and Industry – the free trade zone area, and under integration – the African passport.

She said the agenda represented the clear articulation of the future Africa wants and an opportunity for collective mobilisation of actions and actors. It also anticipates the inclusion of every African, sector and relevant partners, just as it identifies the centrality of Science and Technology, education and human resource development as essential elements.

Njenga revealed that at the moment,  “15 networks involving 72 universities are implementing academic mobility; involving 798 individuals, consisting of 465 masters, 259 PhD students and 74 staff from 39 African countries. The mobility programme is (being) managed by the EC Executive Agency, in collaboration with the AUC.”

On recent developments at the Pan African University (PAU), she said: “President and Vice President for the PAU Council were elected by the AU Summit in January 2015. The first Council meeting is scheduled for June 2015. A new call for students was issued for the 2015-2016 academic year, which attracted 5629 applicants. In November 2014, the PAU graduated its 54 pioneer masters students from PAUSTI in Kenya.  An interim Rectorate has been established at the African Union Commission’s (AUC) headquarters, with staff to oversee the smooth running of the PAU, pending the establishment of a permanent PAU Rectorate in Yaoundé, Cameroon.”

On the continent’s quality assurance efforts, African Union’s Senior Education Expert, Dr Yohannes Woldetensae, explained that the AUC had developed the African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM) and was working with the AAU to produce the Pan African Quality Assurance Accreditation Framework (PAQAAF).

The main objectives of the mechanism, he stated, were to support the development of institutional culture of and commitment to quality; ensure that the performance of African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) could be compared against a set of criteria; foster comparability among qualifications and facilitate academic mobility; improve the quality of delivery in African HEIs; and enhance the means of identifying Centres of Excellence.

Explaining the background, he said the AQRM was developed through extensive dialogue by the African academic community, adopted by the COMEDAF III in 2007 and validated by stakeholders at a meeting co-hosted by the AAU in Accra, Ghana in March 2008.  Its pilot self-rating was conducted in 2010, with 32 institutions from 11 countries participating. The AUC, he said, published the results of the exercise.

He continued: “Following the pilot survey, a revised AQRM questionnaire was designed, using a five-point scale scoring sheet, consisting of 84 standards (49 Institution-level and 35 Programme-level).  In February 2014, a call was made for universities to participate in the AQRM self-rating exercise. Nine universities were selected to validate the results of institutions’ self-rating, through onsite visits, with external reviewers of quality experts. Fifteen quality experts undertook the AQRM validation missions and prepared assessment reports.”

The nine universities were: Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam University (Tanzania), Strathmore University (Kenya), University of Yaounde II (Cameroon) and Botho University (Botswana).  Also included were Kwazulu-Nathal University (South Africa), Institute of Water, 2IE (Burkina Faso), Cape Coast University (Ghana) and the University of Tlemcen (Algeria).

On the way forward for the AQRM, Woldetensae said its results should be published and disseminated, while the mechanism should be revised regularly based on feedback. He implored the AAU to encourage its member institutions for active participation, while the revised AQRM should be implemented in collaboration with national, regional and continental quality assurance agencies.

On the PAQAAF, he stated that two consultants conducted the study while six countries (Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria Senegal and South Africa) and two regional initiatives (IUCEA and CAMES) were considered. The rationale for establishing the PAQAAF, according to him, includes the absence of a continental mechanism for quality assurance in Africa. He also observed that the initiative helps to establish harmonized QA practices; stimulates the setting up of QA agencies; advances the revised ARUSHA convention (or ADDIS Convention) and facilitates mutual recognition of academic qualifications across the continent.

Former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Prof. Peter Okebukola, in his paper titled On the March to Regional Harmonisation and Internationalisation of Higher Education in Africa: Hurdles and Possibilities, narrated recent developments geared towards internationalisation in Africa.
According to him, there were strong indications that within the next 10 years, a regionwide quality assurance and accreditation framework would be put in place. The harmonization of higher education with strong continental cooperation in quality assurance and accreditation, he said, “is an action point in the African Union Commission strategic plan of 2014-2017.”

On the obstacles that need to be surmounted, Okebukola referred to a study carried out by Shabani in 2013, which surveyed Africa’s higher education community and came up with a number of challenges.
The top three challenges were: depreciating quality of teachers; research capacity deficit and inadequacies in facilities for teaching, learning and research. Okebukola said the recommendation for overcoming the first challenge was a suggestion that the virtual institute for improving quality of higher education in Africa using the new Guide for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education be established.

With regard to research capacity deficit, Okebukola recommended collaboration with ROCARE, to run sub-regional workshops on improving research capacity and also run modules on modern methods of conducting and reporting research. Concerning infrastructural inadequacies, he favoured advocacy with national governments.

He continued: “Funding is a major handicap to the success of these efforts, hence African governments need to pay more funding attention to the higher education delivery system. Apart from the broad issue of funding, the teacher factor is worth addressing with vigour. The teacher is a key player in the delivery of quality higher education. “If quality standards are set that are comparable with global best practices and the teachers have capacity deficit to deliver on such standards, the quality of graduates and research will be compromised. The report and action plan of the of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education gave visibility to the deficiencies of many teachers in the higher education system in Africa, especially in pedagogic and research skills.”

European Union’s objective
The European Commission told the delegates that its global objective aims to contribute and support the harmonization of higher education programmes and create a revitalised, distinctive, attractive and globally competitive African higher education space, through enhanced intra-African collaboration.

According to Mr. Deidre Lennan, who represented the commission’s Director General (Education & Culture), the two areas of focus would be harmonization and tuning initiative; and support to quality and accreditation.  The former, he said, was building on the pilot initiative that took place between 2011 and 2013. It involved 120 universities, while the subject areas were increased from five to eight, leading to the establishment of new degree programmes, teaching, learning and assessment methods. Joint agreements in subject areas were also defined.

Lennan said the commission also supported the development of a quality assurance and accreditation system at institutional, national, regional and Pan African continental levels. The European Union’s programme, according to him, provides funding for projects, programmes and scholarships.

On credit mobility, he stated that under the Erasmus programme, grants for students to study at all levels and disciplines are available for between three and 12 months, while teaching staff members could also get funding for teaching and retraining programmes for between five days and two months.

Besides, for the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master degree programs, the commission awards full scholarships to students across the world. There are three annual intakes of students and guest lecturers under this scheme and higher education institutions from all countries can apply to be part of the consortium running the programme.

Rwanda’s Prime Minister’s concerns
The Prime Minister of Rwanda, Mr. Anastase Murekezi called on Professors attending the conference and elsewhere in Africa, to help the continent solve the problem of youth unemployment, which he also likened to a “time bomb,” waiting to explode.

At a meeting with the AAU delegation led by its President, Prof, Olusola Oyewole which paid him a courtesy visit during the conference, Murekezi told his visitors that instability was another major factor drawing the continent back from the path of real development.

He warned that the implosion waiting to happen must be avoided at all costs. “If we do not plan for our youths, on how they can become meaningfully engaged, if we don’t address this issue before time, we cannot survive it” (the consequences).

Sounding almost emotional, he said the biggest question also facing Africa “is how do we develop ourselves?” His words: “We have the biggest challenge in Africa. How do we transform ourselves? How do we live and be proud of who we are. How do we get the necessary skills to survive?”

Murekezi said the intelligence needed to transform the continent resided with the professors. But he wondered why all African universities were not working together to bring about the necessary change. He also regretted the brain drain phenomenon bedeviling various African countries, lamenting that the best brains “continue to go out of Africa.” 
He harped on the need for African universities to collaborate with one another and embrace internationalization, which, according to him, would give Africa the critical skills it needs to accelerate development.

He agreed that many African governments habitually shun their universities, describing the norm as unfortunate. “But Universities must lead the way,” he proclaimed. “Without your research, without your input, we (Africa) cannot develop. We need to change the mindset of African governments, for them to realize that higher education is very important. We need to develop Africa and you are the ones to lead the way.”

He also urged the eggheads not to neglect technical and vocational education, describing it as “very important.” He said the realisation of technical education’s importance, informed the decision by the Rwandan government to establish more Technical and Vocational institutions.

Less talk, more action
But Prof Ishaq Oloyede, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, who was also part of the delegation that visited the Prime Minister, told the magazine that African governments were only good in talking, but very slow in acting. “I have watched them over the years,” he said, “talk of the best commitment in terms of speech, you’ll get it from Africa. Our governments will go to events and they would make profound statements about the importance and centrality of higher education, their commitment to higher education, but that’s where it ends.”

Oloyede, who once presided over the AAU continued: “Look at ARUSHA Convention. Before Europe woke up,  our Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had thought about transfer of credits, which they are now thinking about. They signed and ratified agreement, but no (African) government reported back to the universities, which were to implement it. That was why ARUSHA convention remained on the shelf.

“When I became Vice Chancellor in 2007, when I became chairman, Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC, in Nigeria), I spoke about the ARUSHA convention and people were just looking at me, because the political leaders signed this agreement without transmitting it to the universities, which were supposed to implement the convention. I think they just signed it, they didn’t intend to implement.  It was when we started talking about it that universities became aware of the convention.

“Look at what they did last December. They (African leaders) reviewed it, based on the pressure from the European Union and they now called it the ADDIS Convention, which has not been made available today to any university; at least I can say of Nigeria.  No official copy of what our political leaders endorsed in Addis Ababa in December 2014 has been passed to the universities, which are the principal actors. If somebody wants to transfer from the University of Kenya to the University of Ilorin (in Nigeria), he won’t go the (Nigerian Federal) Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission (NUC) is not part of agreement.

“So, the issue is that, there is dis-connectivity between operators and policy makers in Africa. I like those beautiful words of the Prime Minister. I was in COMEDAF held in Mombasa, and every one of them stood up, making commitments. But as they left Mombassa…..there was a Professor who was the Minister for Higher Education in South Africa. He was indeed the chairman of one of the panels. When I subsequently visited South Africa, I paid him a visit, and when I was talking about some of the proclamations he made, he himself had forgotten, because they didn’t mean it.”

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