Fill hearts, minds and bellies

October 5, 2007

The West should help African universities not only offer degrees but also cut poverty, say John Humphreys and Jane Conlon

Just before the Gleneagles G8 summit in July 2005, there was a conference at the University of Abertay Dundee to discuss higher education in Africa. The participants were seeking to agree a communiqué inviting the G8 leaders to fund a ten-year programme of large-scale investment in African universities.

Having been asked to chair a session, we suggested that the argument for aid funding had to relate directly to poverty reduction. Despite our involvement in African higher education-based poverty-reduction projects and our familiarity with the grotesque statistics for that continent, we did not fully anticipate the fuss that ensued.

Africa is unique - it is the only continent in which the proportion of people in poverty is growing. In 2000, more than 300 million Africans were living in absolute poverty - and by 2015 the number will be more than 400 million. Every day, 40 million African children do not go to school, and soon every third Zambian child will be an orphan. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals make the eradication of poverty the primary objective, the target being to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015. This target will not be achieved, but it is difficult to argue against the priority and focus that it gives to large-scale reduction over a relatively short time scale.

Compared with primary education, the cost of higher education is high while the returns to society are low. Evidence that it yields social benefits over and above those that accrue to the students themselves is sparse. Unlike primary education, the aspiration associated with higher education is not universal participation but equal opportunity of access. But few among the African poor will enrol in the foreseeable future.

So in considering whether international aid should be invested in African universities the real question is, does higher education benefit those who do not participate?

Higher education in much of sub-Saharan Africa is in a parlous state, and it is understandable that African vice-chancellors seek international support. Aid funding for higher education is also of considerable interest to universities in developed countries called upon to provide assistance. In seeking access to such business, developed-world academics are inclined to argue on the basis of the traditional teaching and research roles of universities. The idea is that if African universities can be properly resourced and operated to deliver both, they will be engines for economic growth and will produce the elites necessary for a stable and internationally competitive economy. This argument was used in the 2005 Commission for Africa report, but in the international development community there is a persistent belief that higher education has little role in promoting economic development, and aid funding for the direct benefit of elites is not an obvious solution to the tragedy of African poverty.

Furthermore, economic development is not the same as poverty reduction, which specifically requires increased income to poor people. In Africa as elsewhere, structures within societies focus the benefits of economic growth on the affluent.

In the UK, higher education is asked to reduce social exclusion through widening participation to enable lower socioeconomic groups and disadvantaged communities to alleviate their condition. This has proved difficult enough, but in Africa the disadvantaged communities are huge and the poverty absolute. African universities will have no significant impact on the problem by seeking to emulate the classical university models of the West. Yet the case is made for aid funding based on precisely such models and assertions too often supported by eager developed-world academics.

Back at Abertay in 2005, our suggestion went down like a lead balloon. We used examples of how some universities represented at the conference had, through outreach and enterprise activity, used their institutional strength and academic expertise to the direct benefit of poor communities - widening participation of a sort - but not through undergraduate enrolments. Most rejected our case, sometimes with a little venom. The idea that universities could be directly involved with poverty reduction was, one delegate said, "crass".

So the conference moved on, and the communique to the G8 demanded immediate financial support to enhance the institutional capacities of African universities with no mention of poverty reduction.

Since then, informed by the Commission for Africa and chivvied by the UK Government, the G8 has sought to better support Africa. While a big gap remains between aspiration and funding, some progress has been made.

We do not dispute that higher education in Africa needs help, but we are convinced that such support should be available only where conventional university aspirations are balanced by a real inclination to embrace a poorer clientele.

John Humphreys is pro vice-chancellor (research and enterprise) at Greenwich University. Jane Conlon is a senior manager at Coventry University and chief executive of the Tabeisa consortium of African and European universities.

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