As the G8 countires prepare a development plan for Africa, Francois Rajaoson explains its universities' critical role in the economic future.
Africa's universities were principal casualties of the economic crisis of the late 1970s as governments, which provided about 90 per cent of their needs, were unable to sustain their funding.
As a result of the under-funding, the universities went through one of the most difficult periods in their history as they tried to maintain at least a minimum level of academic quality, while trying to contribute to the socio-economic development of the region.
The 21st century presents a number of challenges. Besides the funding question, African universities must face up to the "knowledge revolution" to which they are making little contribution, they must confront globalisation through the significant improvements in information technology, and they must embrace the emerging commercialisation of higher education.
Their ability to meet these challenges will be influenced by the extent to which they are able to solve their financial problems.
The funding crisis left libraries, classrooms and laboratories poorly equipped. Allocations to research and publications were non-existent, salaries were minimal, and the maintenance of buildings and other facilities was neglected. Strikes by teaching staff and students demanding more subsidies and grants became frequent and universities lost some of their most experienced staff through brain drain. Questions were raised about the quality of education being offered and the contribution of the universities to the overall development of the continent.
Financial difficulties were compounded by a number of related developments, including a rapid increase in demand for university education at the same time that physical space to absorb the extra students was limited. There were also serious strains in relations between governments and universities, characterised by mistrust and confrontation. This situation was aggravated as individuals within the universities criticised government policies and governments moved to curb the actions of these individuals.
As the major source of funding, governments began to issue pronouncements on university policies and programmes and the need for reforms. The response of university leadership to these challenges was seen as inadequate and lacking in the initiative necessary to lead institutions out of their difficulties.
The response from the international community was mixed. There were those who strongly advocated a shift in government policy and priority from higher education to basic education, but others, who had faith in higher education and its role in national development, continued to maintain a minimum level of support for the universities.
In February 2001, the role of the African university in national development was clearly recognised in a declaration issued at the end of the Association of African Universities conference in Nairobi. "Higher education has the function of fostering the capacity of individuals and communities to embrace democratic principles, to uphold human rights and to promote sustainable development," it said.
"African universities must give priority to effective and positive participation in the global creation, exchange and application of knowledgeI and should exploit fully the potential of the information and communication revolution to enhance teaching, learning, research and management (and their contribution to national development)."
When knowledge is so crucial to development, it would be tragic if under-funding of the universities were to lead to a widening of the gap between Africa and the rest of the world. While the primary responsibility for financing universities rests with government, it alone cannot shoulder that responsibility. Governments and the universities need to work in partnership with other stakeholders - students, communities and parents, the private sector and donor partners.
The AAU welcomes the development of private institutions. Although they account for a limited number of students, they provide wider access for training, as well as making the provision of higher education competitive.
The AAU will continue to promote research by African academics on the financing of higher education, to share information among the universities and other stakeholders and to organise programmes to enhance the management capabilities and skills of university leaders.
African universities need to take the initiative and engage in strategic planning to address such issues as access, quality and relevance of HE, the governance structure, management of the human and physical resources, diversification of sources of funding, strengthening of research and access to global knowledge and communication technology.
Francois Rajaoson is secretary-general of the Association of African Universities.