NAIROBI. The quality of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa will deteriorate as long as universities remain caught in the web of soaring student numbers, academic repression and savage budget cuts, a Unesco report has warned.
The report linked the problem to poverty through debt burden, corruption, poor governance and poor management of resources. On average the region devotes more than $12 billion each year to debt repayment, leaving little for higher education.
Unesco wants African universities to re-evaluate their programmes in terms of their relevance to society.
Donald Ekong, a former president of the Association of African Universities, said: "Most of the 120 universities in the region have abandoned research and are no more than glorified high schools."
Unesco suggests universities should have autonomy over staff recruitment and promotion, and student admissions criteria.
"Academic freedom for lecturers to teach and carry on with research is central to delivery of quality higher education everywhere and Sub-Saharan Africa is not an exception," says the report.
However, this can only be achieved if working and living conditions for lecturers are improved and research funds and facilities are readily available.
Lydiah Makhubu, vice-chancellor of the University of Swaziland and a member of Unesco's higher education advisory committee, said the greater globalisation of the African market has had far-reaching effects on the fragile economies of the Sub-Sahara.
The situation has been made worse by an unprecedented loss of staff coinciding with rising demand for higher education.
Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa have been under intense pressure to enrol more students in the face of declining funding, according to Professor Ekong.
The report predicts that tight budgets and high student numbers will exacerbate the academic haemorrhage and brain drain.
If standards are to improve, merit should form the basic criteria for enrolment, Unesco says. "Admission based on students' ability and aptitude would undoubtedly not only guarantee equal rights to access to higher education, but would be a crucial factor in improving the standards of education."
The report criticised state repression and called for conflict resolution during student or staff strikes. "The international community supports an enabling climate for dialogue with strong emphasis on prevention rather than repression," said the report.
It also called for affirmative action to double the numbers of women students, teachers and decision-makers. Such policies should be implemented only after systematic and coherent gender research and case studies have been carried out in specific countries, the report recommended.