V-cs plead for help to combat crisis

February 23, 2001

Leaders of Africa's universities are calling for a conference of heads of governments and donors to address the problems of higher education in the continent.

The vice-chancellors want the Organisation of African Unity to convene the event, as they believe public universities in Africa are undergoing a crisis of poor governmental leadership, political interference, paucity of contemporary programmes and a shortage of funds.

In a meeting in Nairobi earlier this month, vice-chancellors warned that these problems were propelling African universities into academic obscurity.

Delegates to the Association of African Universities said most of the 142 public universities in the continent lacked autonomy.

"The situation is beyond the traditional brain drain of talented African scholars joining foreign universities and research institutions -students with the capacity to pay for quality education now opt for universities abroad," said Jairam Reddy, of the University of South Africa. He said too little was spent on the development of human resources and quality programmes.

Shrinking budgets from governments meant that universities were unable to expand and provide quality education, the AAU heard. In most universities, uncompleted or decrepit buildings, leaky and ill-equipped libraries and lack of educational materials are common. Association president George Eshiwani said: "Laboratories have broken and outdated equipment while most students can not afford core course textbooks."

Vice-chancellors blamed governments for encouraging rapid and chaotic expansion of the student body without increasing physical facilities and staff development. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of students rose from 618,000 to almost 2 million.

According to Lamine Ndiaye, a former rector at the University of Senegal, most African universities have not developed beyond their original postcolonial mission of providing qualified manpower to the nascent independent states. "Universities in Africa have ignored students' competencies, knowledge and skills."

Declining standards of education were blamed for an exodus of students from sub-Saharan Africa to foreign universities. Britain, the United States and Australia have become popular destinations for students from English-speaking African countries, while France continues to attract students from Francophone Africa.

Each year, about 7,000 Kenyan students join foreign universities, spending more than 2 billion shillings (£16 million) in tuition fees, travel and up-keep. The AAU estimates that money used by African students to pay for higher education in foreign universities could improve the local universities if it were properly invested.

Professor Eshiwani asked vice-chancellors to devise programmes and forge partnerships with reputable universities to stem the exodus. "All our members should join the African Virtual University as one way of offering students and lecturers access to information and tools for research," he added.

Vice-chancellors agreed to set up regional university accreditation bodies to oversee standardisation of the curriculum and to enhance student and staff exchanges.

The association said it would ask international donors to fund postgraduate research programmes in African universities instead of providing scholarships tenable at foreign institutions. The meeting resolved to establish centres of excellence and to market their degree programmes abroad.

"Such schemes would stem the brain drain and resuscitate postgraduate programmes in most African universities," said Chacha Nyaigoti Chacha, executive secretary of the Inter-University Council of East Africa.

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