All fired up to meet the challenges of tomorrow

December 9, 2005

A visit to Africa has left Bill Rammell feeling inspired at the continent's commitment to spreading knowledge

For almost a decade our Government has focused relentlessly on education. When you get that right, you enable children to fulfil their potential. And that means a better future for all of us.JA recent visit to Africa gave me the opportunity to see how South Africans and Namibians are sharing this focus.

The Commission for Africa has played a major role in raising awareness of the importance of higher education, which historically hasn't played an important role in the development of the continent. I'm excited by Africa's approach to education and impressed by its progress in encouraging young Africans to aim higher. Further and higher education will be crucial in the next few years for kick-starting technological advancement. It should also help to provide answers to some of the toughest problems facing the continent - transport, sanitation and health.

In Cape Town, I visited the Khayelitsha Township to see the Tabeisa initiative, set up by Coventry and Greenwich universities in partnership with four South African institutions. Tabeisa develops training programmes for disadvantaged children, teaching them to set up and run small businesses. It has been enormously successful, so it was a pleasure to announce that we would provide £50,000 to help establish the same project in Ghana. This is not a one-way street. Schoolchildren and university students in the UK will also learn and grow through the relationships they develop with African students under Tabeisa.

Leadership was a powerful theme at the heart of every institution I visited. This was not only true of prestigious African universities providing world-class education, but also of the new universities and technical colleges, which are working hard to create a centre for change in some of the harshest conditions in the continent. Leadership and the ability to motivate others to pursue further and higher education were skills as invaluable as academic merit. Combining leadership qualities with academic rigour is the great challenge, one that Iam more keen than ever to encourage.

I was moved by personal stories of students at the Cida City Campus, a private higher education institution in Johannesburg that offers business degrees. For less than £40 a year, which covers everything from books and study to accommodation, Cida takes students from some of the most poverty-stricken areas of southern Africa. Students contribute to the running of the campus, including cooking, cleaning and administration, to keep costs down. I met one student from a very small and poor African village who explained how Cida had given her confidence, friends and, most important, self-worth. During holidays she returns to her community and passes on some of what she has learnt to young people there. I was struck by the commitment of the students and the institutions to maximise the learning experience - a real sense of responsibility to pass on knowledge to those worse off than themselves.

Vital work in research, technology and mathematics is under way in universities in South Africa and Namibia, which is critical to the economic and social benefits of Africa. I was impressed to see first hand the dynamic efforts of institutions and proud to be part of that progress through collaborations such as the Association of African Universities and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. These partnerships are critical to strengthen confidence in the African higher education sector.

With this in mind, I announced £200,000 to support an Africa unit at the ACU to promote the development of links between institutions in the UK and those in Africa.

The UK has a lot to learn from Africa - the way in which education embraces such a diversity in language, in culture, and how the country is not just coping with rapid change but making the most of it.

This isn't just about sentiment, and about Britain and Africa telling each other how well we're doing. It's about action, which is why I used this visit to announce new funding and ideas and seek practical outcomes.

On my visit I was accompanied by two vice-chancellors - Brenda Gourley of the Open University and Bob Boucher of Sheffield University. Their involvement reflects the growing partnership between the UK and African nations. We want to contribute to the great changes taking place in Africa, where real leadership is emerging.

It is right that southern Africa plays a full part in this renewal. This country has experienced more upheaval than most and should be proud that yesterday's children, today's young adults, are shaping the future positively.

Bill Rammell is Higher Education Minister.

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