'Let us drive development'

December 8, 2006

ACU to tell ministers how universities can lead revival in Africa, writes David Jobbins

Commonwealth education ministers will later this month hear how universities can drive economic and social development and preserve cultural diversity.

At the next ministerial conference, to be held in Cape Town on December 11-14, the Association of Commonwealth Universities will make a direct intervention for the first time since the inaugural gathering of ministers in 1958.

Details of the ten-minute speech from John Rowett, the ACU's secretary-general, remain confidential. But the general drift is clear from the thrust of the ACU's support for the Commission for Africa recommendations, which aim to revitalise the continent's struggling universities.

The arguments, backed by Tony Blair, place universities at the centre of efforts to end Africa's economic and social decline. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, has begun a parallel drive to energise Africa's universities.

The ACU believes that many Commonwealth countries, most of which need more development, could benefit from similar efforts.

Dr Rowett has said: "Public rates of return for higher education are now seen as far greater than was assumed in the late 1980s and 1990s." He has also noted "huge opportunities" for universities in the UK and other developed countries to forge partnerships in developing Commonwealth states.

One of the Commonwealth's most prominent success stories is the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, which reaches its 50th anniversary in 2009. The challenge for ministers will be to place the plan on a firmer financial footing. It relies on donations from individual member states, and the fragility of its finances was underlined this summer when the new Canadian Government froze spending on its contribution pending a review.

Last month, Peter MacKay, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, said he would seek another extension of the programme that included the CSFP funding. A decision is expected this month.

Another success is the distance-learning scheme Commonwealth of Learning.

Its president, John Daniel, will tell the conference how it will respond to a review that said that its lower-than-projected budget in 2003-06 had caused problems. Australia was a notable absentee from the contributor list. The UK provided £3 million.

A new monitoring and evaluation framework is built into the 2006-09 plan, which will be presented to ministers in Cape Town.

david.jobbins@thes.co.uk

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