News blog: The challenges facing Africa’s higher education system

Chris Havergal blogs from the Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit

July 31, 2015
Africa Universities Summit,

If you are looking for an illustration of the transformative power of higher education in Africa, look no further than the young man I sat next to at dinner last night.

He grew up in a poor, rural province of South Africa, walking more than three miles to and from school each day and not getting electricity in his home until he was a teenager.

But he was bright and, with the help of some sacrifices by his parents and a scholarship, he was able to secure a place at one of South Africa’s leading research-intensive universities.

As we talked at the conference dinner for Times Higher Education’s inaugural Africa Universities Summit, we discussed his job, the continent’s development, and politics.

And while education had transformed this young man’s prospects, what was striking was his recognition not only of what he had gained, but of what he had lost.

For example, his education had changed his relationship with his parents, for his outlook on life was now very different from theirs. He had gone from a life of healthy physical activity to a more sedentary lifestyle. And his move to the city meant that he was now exposed to an urban lifestyle with the risks of alcohol, drugs and violence.

It is about a decade since I was student myself, and I am all too aware of how students in Western countries can perhaps be guilty of taking higher education for granted.

Not this man. Africa faces big challenges, and it is bright young people like him who will take it forward.

THE’s summit, held at the University of Johannesburg, examined how higher education can contribute to tackling these challenges – not just through teaching, but through research, through leadership, and through development activities.

We heard from former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who spoke of how universities had to refocus on development, and to rebuild their relationships with government.

We discussed the continent’s 2063 Initiative, which sets ambitious targets for the growth of education provision. We discussed how this could be funded, how universities can collaborate better on research, and how the “brain drain” of talent can be stemmed.

Also, we discussed how a THE ranking for the region, based on bespoke measures that could reflect institutions’ missions and roles in development, could help drive forward progress.

What was clear at the conference was the appetite to tackle these challenges. The challenges are huge. Ihron Rensburg, the vice-chancellor of Johannesburg, told us that Africa would need 20 to 30 new universities every day (yes, every day) over the next 48 years to meet the anticipated demand.

African higher education needs huge investment, significantly increased collaboration across the continent and around the world, and strong governance.

But on this trip I got a clear insight of what can be achieved. It must be achieved.

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