Sibry Tapsoba explains how the continent's academy is striving to repair its damaged reputation and deliver economic dividends for the region
Higher education in Africa is changing rapidly. Its landscape increasingly resembles the situation on the continent in the 1950s and 1960s, when higher education institutions there had solid reputations as centres of excellence comparable to many universities around the world.
Admissions requirements and procedures are rigorous, and African graduates win places at universities in Europe and the US. While the quality of academic life for students, faculty salary levels and facilities still need to be improved, there are positive signs of regeneration.
If there is good reason for hope, there nevertheless remain issues requiring close attention, in particular the full appreciation of African higher education's potential contribution to growth and development. The recent unrest in North Africa and several other countries in sub-Saharan Africa attests to the vast but too often frustrated potential of the continent's youth. Higher education must help deliver on its promise of a better life by creating conditions that help lead to jobs for millions of unemployed graduates.
It is worth recalling that the worst setback for the academy in Africa occurred in the 1980s, when structural adjustment policies that prioritised basic education were implemented. Since then, resources for the sector have dwindled, resulting in the deterioration of the quality of tertiary and postgraduate services.
War and social conflict in some countries have aggravated the situation to the point where landmark institutions such as Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone (founded in 1827) and the University of Makerere in Uganda (established in 1922) - both once internationally recognised - have lost their reputations as centres of excellence.
In short, higher education in Africa is at the crossroads. On the national level, the huge expansion of the student population in most institutions (the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, for example, opened its doors in 1974 to 374 students but now has more than 30,000) has put pressure on authorities that are dealing with ever more complex social and economic issues.
The problem of finding jobs for graduates, for example, is linked to the relevance of university curricula, but is also connected to the structure of the continent's economy.
At the global level, the impact of the unfolding knowledge economy and networks, along with development strategies driven by innovation, are reshaping higher education.
The key challenge for the continent's system resides in training Africans for the emerging economy that its countries have yet to embrace while maintaining equity of access, quality of output and relevance to the societies in which they are based.
This calls for more emphasis on science and technology, which requires financial resources that African countries do not necessarily have.
The role of higher education in stimulating economic growth is illustrated most clearly in the cases of Ghana and the Republic of Korea.
These countries were at the same stage of economic development in 1960, with an average annual per capita income of about $100. While the latter has experienced steady economic growth and emerged as a key player in the world economy, Ghana has still to attain its Millennium Development Goals, let alone begin to compete globally.
It could be argued that the main reason for this stark differential can be found in the investment made by the Republic of Korea in human capital and science, an investment nurtured by its higher education system.
This fact has motivated several African countries to rethink their university systems and establish credible institutions.
The Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, the Institut International d'Ingénierie de l'Eau et de l'Environnement in Ouagadougou and the Wits Business School in Johannesburg have all have acquired a credibility comparable to institutions in the North and are accepting students from other parts of the world.
The continent has also witnessed the emergence of centres of excellence with regional mandates. The African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, the Institut Africain de Management (a private business school with campuses in Dakar, Bamako and Ouagadougou) and the African Union's Pan-African University (which is in the design phase) are testament to the recent development of regional ambitions for African higher education.
The intra-Africa mobility of students and staff has more than doubled in the past decade, with the major poles being South Africa (for Southern Africa), Kenya (for East Africa), Tunisia and Morocco (for North Africa) and Senegal (for West Africa).
There is also an important trend towards an integrated and harmonised academy through the adoption of the bachelor's, master's, doctorate (or LMD) system used by all French universities: as a result, all of France's former African colonies have implemented it, too. This opens the door to not only greater mobility within francophone higher education institutions in Africa, but also among their anglophone counterparts on the continent and beyond.
These positive trends deserve to be mentioned even though they are not captured in international league tables (the 2011-12 Times Higher Education World University Rankings do not list a single African higher education institution among the Top 100).
There is no doubt that African higher education has come a long way and is being positioned as a catalyst for growth and development. In several countries, special units in charge of universities have been established in the offices of heads of state. In these nations, progress in reforming the academy and in establishing links with industry has been rapid.
But the main challenge remains in positioning higher education as a catalyst for growth. This means developing strategies in which it plays a key role in research and innovation to boost competitiveness. This will take time - but hopefully no more than a decade, provided peace and stability are sustained.
Sibry Tapsoba is manager, special projects in the Office of the Chief Economist of the African Development Bank
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