On the quality of higher education (and human capital development) in Africa

This post first appeared on the African Development Bank’s Integrating Africa Blog where I am a regular contributor. 

UPDATE: I got an email from readers working with the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), exactly the kind of collaboration that I am saying is much needed in Africa. Check them out here.

According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013, the highest ranked university in Africa, the University of Cape Town, is 113th in the world. The ranking system employs 13 performance indicators that take into account universities’ core functions, including “research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” Among the leading 400 world academic institutions, there are only four from Africa, all in South Africa. As a region, Africa only has 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with 168 in Brazil, 2,457 in Europe and 4,103 in the United States. The region is clearly behind as far as knowledge production and dissemination is concerned, producing only 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific knowledge, despite comprising more than 13 percent of the global population.

At barely over 8 percent, Africa’s gross enrollment in tertiary institutions of learning is the lowest of any region in the world (UNESCO, 2011). The average enrollment rate for developing countries is 23 percent, and that for advanced countries is 74 percent. Africa’s poor showing in the higher education sweepstakes is both a cause and effect of the region’s poor economic environment. The massive cuts in higher education funding in the wake of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s, even as enrollment more than tripled between 1991 and 2005, have had an adverse impact on quality. And in turn, the lack of high quality tertiary level education has starved the region of high skills needed for efficient allocation of factors of production thereby stunting improvement in productivity, high value addition and research and development. Africa devotes less than 1 percent of its GDP to research and development.

Data from 33 countries for which it is available show that tertiary education financing in the region has declined from a high of US $6,800 per student per year in 1980 to just about $981 in 2005. Over the same period the World Bank decreased its education lending from 17 percent in 1985-89 to just 7.5 percent currently (this is despite the fact that the World Bank nearly doubled its education lending between 2008 and 2009). The decline in public funding in the face of increasing demand for higher education has led to the proliferation of private universities of dubious standards and a bias towards perceived “soft” fields. In 2004 a meager 28 percent of students were enrolled in perceived “hard” disciplines in the sciences and engineering.

A 2008 study of 12 countries showed an increase in public universities from 113 to 188 between 1995 and 2008. Over the same period private universities ballooned from 14 to 107. This rapid increase in the number of universities in the region has not been matched by an increase in the number of trained teaching staff or facilities such as laboratories, libraries, and the like. Indeed, most of the new universities have tended to specialize in vocational subjects that require very little capital and human resource investment. To put it mildly, there is a great mismatch between the region’s development needs and the type of graduates it produces each year.

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An impression of the proposed Konza City in Kenya

The shortage of skills permeates nearly all skill levels, and could get worse as the region’s economy continues to grow over the next two decades. The case of Kenya is illustrative. The country has an ambitious plan to be the information and communication technology (ICT) hub of Eastern Africa (dubbed the “Silicon Savannah”) complete with a proposed $10 billion techno-city (Konza City) situated about 60 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. Already ICT multinationals, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and Intel, have their regional headquarters in Kenya. All this sounds good, except the lack of local skills. IBM’s research lab in Kenya has had to source for top talent among graduates in computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and data scientists from American universities. There is still a shortage of required skills among graduates of Kenyan universities. Quality assurance is also lacking, as recent news reports of “theses for hire” have demonstrated.

As the Kenyan case suggests, the lack of sufficient investment in high quality tertiary education has adversely impacted Africa’s ability to realize its economic potential. A 2005 study showed that a one-year increase in the higher education stock of the region could boost growth rate by about 0.63 percentage points. This adds up to an overall increase in income by about 12 percent over five years. For the region to take off economically there is need for greater investment in quality higher education that will train workers for the 21st century economy. But improving the quality of higher education in the region will be a very costly affair. On their own, the region’s countries lack both the resources (on account of their small economies) and demand (on account of their population sizes) to justify the types of investments required. This is where regional cooperation comes in.

Cross-border educational exchanges are not new in Africa, and go back to the pre-independence era. For generations non-Senegalese francophone students have studied in Senegal, seen as a cheap way of getting quality education at par with diplomas from France. Uganda, with East Africa’s top university, Makerere, hosts legions of Kenyan students, eager to avoid congestion and high costs back home. South Africa, with its many quality institutions is also a preferred destination for students from across the continent. These historical cross-border exchanges have led to the formation of regional associations of higher education – the francophone Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Superieur (CAMES); Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA); Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA); and inter-university cooperation under the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Continent-wide, the 208-member Association of African Universities (representing 45 countries) is the umbrella organization of the region’s institutions of higher learning.

These associations need to be strengthened and empowered as drivers of regional harmonization of higher education both to facilitate cross-border inter-university mobility of both teachers and students and guarantee quality assurance. As a 2007 World Bank report aptly noted, “regional quality assurance networks are particularly relevant to Africa because of human resource constraints.” On this score the European Higher Education Area provides a possible model. The just over 10 years old Bologna process is working towards ensuring inter-university mobility (in terms of courses, qualifications, and periods of study) as well as a uniform quality assurance standard. In the African context, a continent-wide area of higher education is infeasible because of language and logistical constraints. However, sub-regional areas of higher education, based on the existing associations, provide a possible avenue to invest in a few good institutions of higher learning that can have a demonstrative effect on national institutions as well set high standards of learning. The associations themselves can also serve as certification bodies to ensure a uniform quality assurance standard (see here).

The announcement in late July 2013 of the creation of a new US $154.2 million multinational science, innovation and technology Pan African University (PAU) in the next five years is therefore welcome. (The African Development Bank (AfDB) has pledged a $45 million grant towards the effort.) PAU will be structured around existing institutions of higher learning across Africa’s five sub-regions. Basic sciences, technology and innovation will be based in East Africa; earth and life sciences including health and agriculture in West Africa; governance, humanities and social sciences in Central Africa; water and energy sciences including climate change in North Africa; and space sciences in Southern Africa.

Thus far, discussions over regional integration of systems of higher education have tended to view tertiary institutions as tools for regional economic and political integration – be it in East Africa, Europe or East Asia. However, the creation of stronger regional areas of higher education – especially in a region like Africa – can also be an economically efficient way of facilitating greater investment in higher education to match the demands of a 21st century economy. It is encouraging that current trends signal a move in this direction. University systems in Africa’s sub-regions would be a good place to start.

I conclude with a caution. The rapid increase in the number of public and private universities in Africa over the last two decades has come at the expense of other post-secondary institutions of learning such as polytechnics (this shift has occurred to a lesser extent in francophone Africa than anglophone Africa). In many countries governments have simply converted polytechnics and other constituent colleges into fully-fledged universities. This trend is worrying, especially given the fact that the vast majority of high school leavers on the continent do not make it to university. The low quality of high school education in the region (as demonstrated by the recent mass student failures in Liberia and Tanzania) is yet another reason why these “bridge” tertiary institutions are needed, both to prepare students for university and to impart valuable skills for those that do not eventually make it to university.

The rush to invest in university education should not distract from the fact that vocational post-secondary institutions, such as polytechnics, are an important component of human capital development, even in advanced countries as is the case in Germany (with its impressive “dual system” of training codified in the Vocational Training Act of 1969). As African economies move from dependence on primary commodities to manufacturing and technology, there will be need for skilled workers at all occupational levels. Doing away with vocational post-secondary institutions will only serve to further inhibit the development of adequate and relevant human capital to match the increased demand for skilled workers.

What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

Continuing the Darfur Campaign

The Washington Post has a piece on Darfur that I liked. check it out.

The Times too has a piece on Darfur. Also interesting about the piece is the fact that Bashir seems to be betting on the idea that since Sudan is an Islamic country (and a member of the Arab league) the international community will be hesistant to intervene even as he continues in his plans to punish Darfuris by denying them aid. The Arab league and the African Union should be most ashamed for not having come out to condemn Bashir’s actions when he expelled aid workers from most of Darfur.

ICC issues arrest warrant for Bashir

The International Criminal Court on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir. It is the first time that such a warrant has been issued for the arrest of a sitting head of state. The ICC is accusing Bashir of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the genocide in Darfur.

This particular warrant will be a real test. Being a sitting president, it is hard to see how he can be arrest since the warrant itself will be delivered to the government of Sudan. Furthermore, al-Bashir now has every incentive to remain president and to clamp down on the opposition. Some members of the Sudanese civil society have criticized the idea of attempting to arrest al-Bashir, arguing that it will only make him dig in and reverse any progress that they have made in terms of being granted civil liberties and political space.

The government of Sudan is yet to officially respond to the arrest warrant although the BBC quotes a government official as terming the warrant as “neo-colonialist.”

chadian ban on charcoal ludicrous

charcoal1

On January 16th the government of Chad banned the use of charcoal in the country – without providing any sensible alternatives. Worried about desertification in the arid Central African state, the government announced that it was banning all charcoal making from freshly cut trees. Chadians can still make charcoal from dead wood.

While I appreciate the need to stop the southward spread of the Sahara, I think the government went too far on this one. It is ridiculous that the governmnet of Chad (of all countries) can suddenly wake up and decide that it is time to stop using charcoal fuel and switch to propane – or whatever other alternative for that matter. Banning charcoal use will not stem desertification. Planting trees, having a decent irrigation plan and being serious about population control and smart ways of using scarce water resources will. Merely banning people from using charcoal or firewood will not cut it. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of Africans still depend on woodfuel for their daily energy needs. Switching to more environment-friendly fuel sources will take time.

I know that the Chadians and the other countries in the Sahel are especially on heightened alert with regard to desertification but this was surely not the way to go. How many Chadians can afford propane? How many Chadians have gas burners? How many Chadians have viable alternatives to charcoal? These are the questions the men in N’djamena should have asked before unilaterally banning the use of charcoal in the country.

weekly news round up

This week saw a lot take place on the continent.

In Kenya, negotiations to restore order and legitimacy in the government and possibly grant the opposition a power sharing arrangement are in an advanced stage. The former UN boss Kofi Annan, who is chairing the talks, is scheduled to announce to the Kenyan public agreements made thus far tomorrow (Friday).  Kenyans desperately need a political solution to the crisis that has hit the formerly peaceful nation since last year’s election.

Moving North West to Chad, the president Idriss Deby has declared a state of emergency after last week’s coup attempt. Deby’s government was almost toppled by a bunch of rag-tag rebels who are believed to be in cahoots with the government of Sudan. Lucky for Deby, the French sent in their airforce which enabled the government repel the rebels who were already in the capital and ready to take control of the presidential palace. The curfew restricts movement at night and especially the movement of vehicles. The defeat of the rebels last week was surely a mere postponement of their return since the government of Chad remains weak and only concentrated in Djamena.

Down South, former Zimbabwean finance minister, Simba Makoni, announced that he was going to challenge Robert Mugabe 82, in the March elections. Makoni’s announcement was swiftly followed by his expulsion from ZANU-PF and a rejection from the main opposition chief, Morgan Tsvangirae. Zimbabwe’s opposition remains sectarian and Mugabe loves this because it does guarantee him a win in March. Makes you wonder whether these people really want Rob’s government out.

In the Comoros islands, the government announced that it was planning to carry out an invasion of the renegade island of Anjouan in an attempt to reunite the Indian ocean archipelago. Comoros consists of three islands Anjouan, Grand Comore and Moheli each with its own autonomous government. Anjouan, however, led by one Mr. Mohammed Bacar, has broken from the fold since it held controversial elections in June of last year. Majority of the residents of Anjouan seem to be in favor of the invasion by the Union government based in Moroni, the capital. It’s now a wait ands see as the government continues to amass troops on the island of Moheli. Watch this space. 

Looking ahead, President George Bush of the US is due to visit Africa. The president’s itinerary will include stops in Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Benin and Liberia. The president’s visit will mainly serve to highlight the successes of his efforts to stop the spread of aids on the continent and to distribute ARVs to those already infected. Accompanying him will be first lady Laura Bush and the “foreign affairs minister” Condi Rice.

chadian rebels finally routed

Chad, like most of central Africa, is a sad story. After days of fighting, reports indicate that the government of Idriss Deby – possibly with some help from the French – has managed to to repel rebels from the capital and gain “total control.” The question is, for how long? This was the second time in a few years that the rebels had marched into the capital and threatened to topple Deby. This was also a confirmation that the government of Chad remains weak and unable to provide security, let alone development programmes, for its own people.

The story of Chad is a story that is repeated many times on the continent of Africa. You always have very weak governments that are unable to provide the most basic of public goods to their people but that are propped up by the West- the French being the number one culprits here. The French were friends with Bokassa and Mobutu, among other francophone-African dictators who brought much suffering to their own people while maintaining strong ties to Paris and having frequent state visits to the Elysee. The opposition to these weak governments is also just as weak. The many rebels movements fighting silly wars of greed devoid of any ideological significance are too weak to win. Instead they put their countrymen through wars of attrition that keep them forever stagnant in pre-modern subsistence existence. The same applies for Political opposition parties. Think of Zimbabwe. Everyone wants Mugabe out, except Tsvangirai and Mutambara – the two men who have refused to join forces within the MDC in order to unseat Bob.

More than two decades after Achebe wrote about it in Nigeria, the trouble with Africa still remains simply and squarely a problem of leadership. There is nothing inherently wrong with Africa or the African people. The only strange thing about Africa is its ability to keep churning out more Mobutus, Bokassas and Amins and very few Mandelas.

Going back to Chad…… may be it is a good thing that Deby is still president. However, deep down I think that that Africans should think hard about their many weak and unviable states. The DRC, Somalia and many states in the Sahel some to mind. If these countries cannot get their act together they should be left to the mercy of “evolution of states” so that in the end we can have states that are viable and able to provide for their people and not kleptocracies that only benefit their leaders’ kinsmen and a few multinational corporations.

chadian government may fall soon

Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, is in deep trouble. Rebel forces are reported to have entered the capital, Ndjamena, and are marching to the presidential palace “surprisingly easily.” The rebels have been waging a war against the government of Mr. Idriss Deby for some years now and this time they managed to march into the capital and seem to be ready to topple the government.

Many had expected that the French army was going to step in to help Mr. Deby but it seems like the French are taking a wait-and-see position on this one. Mr. Deby accuses the government of Sudan of supporting the Chadian rebels. Sudan on the other hand accuses Chad of sponsoring the Darfuri rebels that have given Khartoum very bad press since 2000.

The African Union has condemned the attempted violent seizure of power but done nothing else. As the rebels marched towards the capital no country within the organisation offered any kind of support for Mr. Deby.

It is a bit surprising and disturbing at the same time that the government of Chad is being toppled so easily by a rebel movement. The march to the capital was well known and documented by the international media yet the government seemed to lack the capacity to take the fight to the rebels in the North East before they reached the capital. May be the government ought to be removed – because it has proven to be weak and unable to protect its people against these marauding desert rebels.

It is unclear what the rebels intend to do once they seize power. The success rate of such movements in forming governments is very low. Only Museveni, Kagame, Kabila, Zenawi and Charles Taylor have ever pulled this off before. All the other coups on the continent have been carried out by disgruntled government soldiers.

Meanwhile, as the men fight it out for power in this hot and dusty country, hundreds of thousands of people face crises on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border. The refugee camps are crowded, disease infested and unsafe. Aid workers have scaled down most of their operations due to the security situation leaving thousands without much hope for a better life.