The key to a continent

March 31, 2006

Africa and the international community recognise that higher education is essential to development. John Rowett explains the Commonwealth's vital role

The key to Africa achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals - which include eradicating poverty, improving health and promoting international development partnerships - and embedding democracy on the continent is the intellectual and physical renewal of its universities. This is the conviction of Africa's leaders, who have emphasised this point repeatedly, and especially since 1996, when finance ministers called on the World Bank to adopt a new approach to support higher education in Africa.

In November 2004, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa insisted that the African university had to be placed "at the heart of any sustainable effort to rebuild our continent". Similar calls had been made repeatedly by presidents Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, Festus Mogae of Botswana, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal.

Investment in science and technology, in part through the creation and development of regional centres of excellence, is integral to that renewal programme. There is also a recognition of the need to develop new curricula, perhaps most obviously in peace and security, and sustainable development.

Higher education became central to the development agenda in the wake the report of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, Our Common Interest . The report bolstered the intellectual arguments for higher education's role in Africa's future and called on the international community to provide $8 billion (Pounds 4.6 billion) to begin implementing the renewal programme.

Higher education was at the heart of the report's recommendations - from new programmes to support agriculture to projects to foster peace and security. Above all, it emphasised that higher education was key to developing a new generation of African leaders and intellectuals.

But the report was only part of a wider historical process. Last year's G8 Summit at Gleneagles supported its recommendations and spurred the process of building new partnerships with Africa and implementing programmes to support development.

Since Gleneagles, the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Association of African Universities have taken things forward. The African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) have endorsed the renewal programme, and Nepad has recognised the AAU and the ACU as key partners in the renewal of African higher education.

Internationally, the scheme is being discussed by agencies such as Unecso, the World Bank and the Agence universitaire de la francophonie.

The UK's Department for Education and Skills has committed £200,000 over two years to establish an Africa unit at the ACU to develop sustainable higher education links with Africa, and the ACU will work with government departments and institutions in the UK. In Africa, the unit will work with the African Union, Nepad, the AAU, the AUF, and regional and national bodies and institutions. It will seek partnerships with industry and international organisations. It will also broker Commonwealth collaboration and share the lessons learnt.

The unit will be directed by the ACU secretary-general in collaboration with the secretary-general of the AAU. Myles Wickstead, formerly head of the secretariat of the Commission for Africa and British Ambassador to Ethiopia, will be a senior adviser to the unit, which will draw on a range of advisers including distinguished higher education leaders from across the Commonwealth and the African continent. The UK Office of Science and Innovation will fund a post to co-ordinate donors in support of Nepad's science, technology and innovation strategy and the development of a UK programme to bolster science and innovation in Africa.

Everyone involved is aware of the road still to travel, yet we are convinced that progress is being made towards realising the goals of the Commission for Africa and the AU/Nepad. The Commonwealth and its universities will play a key role in achieving these goals and in promoting international co-operation and development generally.

John Rowett is secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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