Unesco warms to Eritrea

October 9, 1998

Paris

For a few fleeting moments this week the higher education world put funding and management issues aside to consider the plight of a small newly independent nation and its embattled university in the Horn of Africa.

After three decades of war and an interval of just six years Eritrea once more faces the prospect of war with Ethiopia.

Wolde-Ab Yisak, president of the University of Asmara, told Unesco's World Conference on Higher Education in Paris of the Eritrean government's attempts to organise the university to play a leading role in development programmes.

"The University of Asmara had to be revitalised after its devastation ... Education is not viewed as an end in itself but rather as a strategic tool for development."

In the past six years it has produced 1,600 baccalaureate degree-holders, more than 500 with diplomas or certificates and 1,200 civil servants who had gone through an eight-week training programme at the university's management institute.

The Eritreans' utilitarian approach is a clear example of the transformation of universities, as recommended by the Association of African Universities. In its paper to conference, the AAU said that Africa has 3,000 skilled personnel per million population against a world average of 23,400 per million. "The great challenge is to make the higher education community contribute meaningfully to social, cultural and economic development," it says.

The Unesco event has attracted more than 105 education ministers and Unesco officials hope the event will reposition higher education in government thinking.

But Georges Haddad, honorary president of the University of Paris, Pantheon Sorbonne and chairman of the conference steering committee, said there was no intention of devising a standard model for global application.

A declaration is to be finalised today on higher education for the 21st century. It calls on universities to warn of potential social and economic pitfalls. It also says students are stakeholders in higher education's renewal.

The United States, unlike Britain, has yet to rejoin Unesco, but is represented by a strong delegation and played a significant part in drafting the declaration.

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