Thabo Mbeki on the future of African universities

The full text of the former president of South Africa’s speech at the THE Africa Universities Summit

August 15, 2015
Thabo, Mbeki, South Africa, Africa Universities Summit,

In a speech at the inaugural Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, offered his assessment of how higher education might play a central role in the next 50 years of development in the continent.

Here is the full text of Mr Mbeki’s speech, which was delivered at the University of Johannesburg, which hosted the THE summit, on 30 July:

We have gathered here at the University of Johannesburg to consider an important matter – “Moving Africa’s Universities Forward”.

I am certain that it is a matter of common cause among us and particularly the distinguished leaders of our universities that there has been extensive discussion over the years relating to the matter of the role and place of the African university in the 21st century.

We also have the advantage that only four months ago we had the first African Higher Education Summit on Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future, which was held in Dakar, Senegal.

Even before that, in 2009, the Association of African Universities issued its “Abuja Declaration on Sustainable Development in Africa: The Role of Higher Education”, adopted at its 12th general conference of that year.

Even earlier, in 2006, UNESCO convened a colloquium at its headquarters in Paris under the theme – “Universities as Centres of Research and Knowledge Creation: An Endangered Species?”.

Though this colloquium was not focussed on Africa, nevertheless it came to conclusions which are directly relevant to the very theme this summit has convened to discuss.

I have mentioned all these initiatives to make the point that I believe that we have a pretty good idea of the matters on which we should focus to move Africa’s universities forward.

What remains to be done is to elaborate the practical and realistic programmes that should be put in place to achieve the objectives which have been identified.

I am certain that it is not necessary for me to list the catalogue of measures on which Africa must act to achieve our common objective of moving our universities forward. You are in any case better educated about this matter than I am.

However, it may not be amiss if I recall the principles mentioned in the draft declaration and plan of action adopted at the Dakar African Higher Education Summit. As you know, the document says:

 

“We agree to be guided by the following principles:

1. Provision of high quality, pan-African and globally competitive education;

2. Promotion of world class culture of research and innovation;

3. Provision of adequate resources;

4. Promotion of access, equity, and accountability;

5. Promotion of institutional autonomy and academic freedom;

6. Pursuit of operational excellence in institutional management;

7. Pursuit of the engagement of African academic communities in higher education policymaking;

8. Strengthening linkages to society, economy, and employers;

9. Building inter-institutional collaborations; and,

10. Pursuing mutually-beneficial internationalisation initiatives.”

 

I believe that all of us here are perfectly familiar with the detailed obligations which attach to honouring these principles including with regard to such matters as:

  • Increasing student enrolment, paying attention to the involvement of women;
  • Increasing the appropriately qualified teaching staff to maintain the necessary teacher/student ratios;
  • Ensuring adequate access to books and journals, the internet and ICT;
  • Building the physical infrastructure to enable the university to discharge its teaching, learning, research and community responsibilities;
  • Addressing issues of epistemology and curriculum development;
  • Attending to the matter of the employability of the graduating students in the economy, the state and the community;
  • Instituting a quality assurance system;
  • Focusing on the issue of the expansion of knowledge through research, publication and the access of students both to the practice and outcomes of research and encouraging innovation;
  • Optimising learning and research possibilities by establishing linkages among the African universities and institutes and establishing centres of excellence, including research institutes and universities, and drawing on the African intelligentsia and professionals who have left the continent through the so-called brain drain;
  • Increasing the intake of students and lecturers especially from other African countries while avoiding weakening the capacity to deliver quality higher education in any one of our countries; and generating the necessary funds to finance all these complex processes on a sustainable basis.

Needless to say, the challenge to achieve these objectives is not merely a technical matter. I strongly believe that it requires the right mind-set to bring about the important changes which I suppose are a matter of common cause.

In this respect, with your permission, I would like to cite some comments that have been made on the matter of the future of the African university, comments with which you will be familiar.

In his paper, “Tertiary Education and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa at the Dawn of the Twenty First Century: A Lost Hope, Or Present Opportunity?”, Raphael Ogom [of DePaul University, Chaicago] said: “In its current form, design and content, (sub-Saharan African higher education) is of limited relevance in the context of rapid social and economic changes in the region and bears little connections to the local economy and society.

“Modelled after European higher education, it has evolved from educating only a few highly qualified students into mass systems of lower quality (Bollag, 2004). This expansion, unfortunately, has not been accompanied by a grounded re-development of curricula that reflects, and is better suited, to the realities of the Sub-Saharan Africa environment and development needs.

“A re-think and re-design of the mission of higher education from the current curricula of theoretical sophistication, mismatch, and irrelevance to one that holistically aligns the educational system with the local industry and overall development needs, is long overdue… [Without this] it is likely, and regrettably so, that the socio-economic development promise of tertiary education in Africa might remain a lost hope at the dawn of the 21st century and beyond.”

I am certain that you are better placed to judge whether this assessment of our universities is correct. However I am certain that there is no gainsaying the fact that none of the changes proposed even at the Dakar Summit would make sense outside the context of the transformation urged by Professor Ogom.

In the 2009 Abuja Declaration I have mentioned, the Association of African Universities said:

“The real challenges for sustainable development in Africa are the promotion of economic and industrial development, the eradication of poverty, the resolution of conflicts, and the optimum use of its natural resources.

“[And yet] the African higher education research agenda tends to focus on purely academic and scientific objectives in order to ensure publication in refereed journals, with little regard to developmental needs because of the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome.

“Most of the research works in Africa are rarely relevant to the search for continental solutions to health, education, water, climate change, energy and food security - all sustainable development indices.

“Where research has been conducted in relevant areas, the findings have remained largely on shelves and unavailable to those who need to take action or implement the often useful recommendations.”

These observations are directly relevant to the important matter of the funding of higher education to which I will return.

But before I do so, please allow me to quote some comments made by emeritus professor Eldred Durosimi Jones of the University of Sierra Leone in his 2004 paper on “African Academics and African Universities in the Twenty-First Century: Needs and Responsibilities”.

Professor Jones writes: “[The] division between the privileged and the under-privileged [in Africa] has resulted in social and political instability which is bound to continue as long as a significant section of society is left out of the full participation for and enjoyment of the benefits of development.

“What then are some of these challenges that our academics must face if they are to fulfil their role in the surrounding society? They are to produce men and women who in addition to their particular skills as scientists, engineers, teachers, social workers, priests, artists etc., must be sufficiently aware and committed to eradicating this social scourge.

“Whatever their individual professional skills, students must emerge from our tertiary institutions with this social awareness… Programmes must be devised, preferably a general programme to be undertaken by all students irrespective of their particular discipline early in their courses of study.

“All the students should come out of such a course aware of their environment and their place in it. In these days, it must be realised that this environment is becoming increasingly global… Our aim in teaching should be to produce men and women who are both critical and creative. Our students should be encouraged to be thinkers and doers rather than accumulators of facts and received knowledge. This must be so if they are to be instruments of change, working towards the realisation of a just and consequently, stable society.”

This brings me to the very important matter of the generation of the funds needed to finance the changes needed to move Africa’s universities forward. In this regard I will refer only to the issue of public funds.

Correctly the Dakar Summit said it is necessary to “increase investment in higher education to facilitate development, promote stability, enhance access and equity; develop, recruit and retain excellent academic staff and pursue cutting-edge research and provision of high quality teaching. Appropriate investments are required at institutional, national, regional, and international levels.”

It then said: “Sustained efforts must be undertaken led by governments, and including all key stakeholders in higher education, to situate higher education at the centre of the development agenda. Establishing such a priority is a prerequisite to guarantee its funding.

“The expansion and provision of quality higher education will require proportionally higher, sustainable, and predictable levels of public funding.”

I think the critical phrase in these paragraphs is – “situate higher education at the centre of the development agenda.”

This is the development agenda to which the Association of African Universities referred, which would be addressed by the transformed universities of which Professpr Ogom wrote, sustained by the relevant research the Association of African Universities spoke about and promoted by the socially conscious graduates Professor Jones visualised.

The Dakar summit said the sustained efforts to situate higher education at the centre of the development agenda should be led by our governments.

I think this is wrong or perhaps I should say that it requires prior preparation.

Somewhere deep in its bowels, the Dakar declaration makes the critically important undertaking that: “African higher education institutions shall commit themselves to the pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and provision of solutions to the development challenges and opportunities facing African people across the continent.”

In my view this important paragraph should have been placed in the very preamble of the declaration.

In all humility I would have rephrased it to read something like this: “We have gathered at this 1st African Higher Education Summit to consider the strategic question of what the African universities should do effectively to help advance the African development agenda.

“We are firmly convinced that higher education on our continent should be situated at the centre of the African development agenda.

“Accordingly, the African higher education institutions shall commit themselves to public service and the provision of solutions to the development challenges and opportunities facing African people across the continent through the pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and community service.”

As all of us know, at independence and for some time after that, our countries viewed our universities with great pride. Indeed many of these were a direct product of our liberation from colonialism.

In very practical ways these universities were indeed situated at the centre of the African development agenda through the supply of the required educated cadre, the generation of ideas to advance the development agenda and engagement in the upliftment of communities.

There is fairly extensive literature about how the then healthy relationship between the state and the university was weakened and destroyed. In many instances, if not most, this was linked to the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes by the Bretton Woods institutions and the perception among the African ruling elite that the universities were serving as centres of political opposition to this elite.

These combined in a process which led to the impoverishment and weakening as well as the marginalisation of the African University from both the state and the development agenda.

Thus did it come about that in many African countries governments came to consider expenditure on universities and therefore higher education as a burdensome but unavoidable cost rather than an absolutely necessary and beneficial investment.

I therefore think that one of the major tasks our universities must undertake is advocacy to convince the so-called political class in Africa that they are indeed situated at the centre of the African development agenda and therefore need new investment significantly to improve their capacity to discharge their responsibilities relating to that development agenda.

It is only once they are convinced about all this that it would be possible for our governments to lead the process which would result in the substantially larger public funding that is required and without which many of the radical changes that need to be made will not see the light of day.

We are very fortunate that when it approved the document “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want” in January this year, the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government also endorsed the objective contained in that document, namely: “[To] build and expand an African knowledge society through transformation and investments in universities, science, technology, research and innovation; and through the harmonisation of education standards and mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications [as well as] establish an African Accreditation Agency to develop and monitor educational quality standards across the continent.”

Perhaps the recognition of the need for an African knowledge society to achieve the Africa we want by 2063 is exactly the message we need to signal the commitment of our political leadership to provide the resources which will enable the African university to play its role, firmly situated at the centre of the Agenda 2063 development vision.

Time will tell how well the African state and the African university respond to the shared challenges they face!

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