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April 4, 1997

Unesco is helping African leaders map out a mission for higher education in the continent. Wachira Kigotho reports

This week leaders of African governments and universities held a crucial meeting in Dakar, Senegal, to map out the mission of the continent's tertiary education for the next century and beyond. The conference, organised by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, is one of a series of regional meetings that will culminate in the World Conference on Higher Education in Paris during 1998.

Universities worldwide are in a fix, caught between a flood of students in search of useful degrees and severe budget cuts imposed by governments interested in improving primary and secondary education. Nowhere is this scenario so real as in sub-Saharan Africa where overcrowding, low budgets, governmental interference, staff retention problems and other problems have contributed to inefficiency and falling of academic standards.

This trend is to be found invirtually all the 100 state-controlled universities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Marco Antonio Dais, director of Unesco's division of higher education, says that it is now time for developing countries to "escape from decades of increasing exclusion and poverty". He has called on governments to ensure that young people are not denied university education simply because of their inability to meet the costs.

Such good intentions might not work in many parts of Africa where universities are under siege. According to a former academic registrar at the University of Zimbabwe, Robert Blair, poor relationships between national governments and universities have been more damaging to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa than non-availability of resources.

Studies carried out by the Association of African Universities indicate that many governments in sub-Saharan Africa were to blame for deterioration of universities. Many governments had not been interested in quality of education, but in universities churning out civil servants who would support the system.

This was connected to the appointment of university leaders, many of whom are state appointees. Excellent scholars have often been sidelined in favour of less able colleagues who had good connections in ruling cliques. In other instances, promotions to senior positions in universities have often been influenced, causing frustration and resignations in many universities. This has led to serious staffing problems characterised by high turnover and inability by some universities to fill critical teaching posts in several departments.

Josephine Jordan, an occupational psychologist at the University of Zimbabwe, says that few African universities plan systematically for staff development or encourage universities to have links with the productive sector.

"The staff retention crisis is being compounded by weak institutional management capabilities in areas of personnel," says Dr Jordan. Few universities ever engage in staff evaluation, offer incentives for good performance or even fire staff who perform poorly. An absence of job descriptions is another aspect that has affected quality in many universities. In Nigeria, lecturers spend 48 per cent of their time on administration and only 29 per cent teaching.

Unesco estimates that in the past 14 years, enrolment in universities in developing countries has doubled from 17 million to more than 35 million students. This stems from a population growth rate in many countries, as well as the ability and commitment of many young people to continue with higher education.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Unesco, governments and other interested groups, will have to contend with the emerging social apartheid under which the affluent send their children to the best institutions in Europe and the United States while the poor complete their degrees in mediocre and poorly-funded universities. And employers there have started discriminating against graduates from African universities for jobs and promotions.

The AAU says that African universities must now be seen to respond to the new challengesfacing the continent, otherwise they will not survive. They will have to improve scholarships and move away from a token commitment and towards the degree programmes that they offer. Rehabilitation of postgraduate programmes which have nearly collapsed should be a priority.

The ratio of science and mathematics to liberal studies must be increased. It is below 20:80, while the Unesco recommendation is 40:60. Although those guidelines were suggested more than 15 years ago, no sub-Saharan countries have met them.

Governments and universities will have to open pathways for permanent dialogue urgently. Industry and other business concerns should also be encouraged to participate in higher education and in research.

Unesco says that the lack of teaching skills in many African universities has contributed greatly to the problem of graduate unemployment and under-employment.

Florida Karani, a deputy vice chancellor of the University of Nairobi, told a Unesco workshop in Nairobi, covering learning and teaching skills, that the lecturer method was being over-used. She went on to describe more than 50 traditional teaching techniques that could be used to improve the quality of teaching.

Although African universities have now adopted new technology, she said that they could use simple but well-tested teaching styles. Paul Vitta, Unesco's representative in Kenya, called on scholars to utilise basic learning resources such as chalkboards, slides, comics, cartoons and other community-based teaching structures.

Unesco has criticised degree structure and content as being outmoded and conservative. P. A. O. Okebukola, the organisation's expert on African education systems, has argued that more than three decades after independence, African universities are still debating their degree structure and content, and discussing how to teach the courses. He said they behaved as if they were the training appendage of the civil service.

Representatives from the Association of African Universities supported the Unesco initiative to improve teaching skills. They pointed out that the presence of more than 100,000 expatriates in Africa is evidence that local higher education has failed to deliver.

"Universities in Africa are out of tune with today's job market and will have to shed excessive baggage carried over from the colonial period. They will also have to stop being used by autocratic regimes to serve narrow interests," said Professor Okebukola.

Unesco's objective, says Dr Vitta, is to create an African university that is capable of leading the continent into the 21st century. He challenged African universities to drop elitist structures.

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