Tawana Kupe ACADEmic
Africa is a continent on the rise, where economic performance has proved resilient despite turbulent international events. But Africa is also a continent of contradictions and complexity — for example, although the percentage of persons living in poverty has declined, the absolute number of poor people has increased, and striking levels of inequality persist.
Eliminating poverty and inequality is a developmental priority that we cannot ignore. The African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 envisions “a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, where poverty is eradicated in one generation”.
Eliminating poverty and inequality is also a global agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for joint action by the global community to eliminate poverty and inequality, ensure food and nutrition security and meet other sustainable development targets.
However, achieving the ambitious SDGs will require a substantial investment of approximately US$1,4 trillion a year. Given the magnitude of the challenge and the scale of investment needed, it is not possible that development aid or public spending alone will be able to achieve this. The United Nations has therefore
articulated a strong call for co-operative action for all sectors — including the private and educational sectors — to play a fundamental role.
There are several mega-trends that are set to impact the development agenda in Africa in the future.l Africa is getting younger. All 10 of the world’s countries with the youngest populations are in Africa, with approximately 65% of the continent’s citizens below the age of 35. While Africa can benefit from young people’s energy and ability to work, changing economies need skilled and educated workers.
Failure to provide viable opportunities for economic participation for this ‘youth bulge’ can lead to conflict and political instability. From this perspective, access to quality, relevant higher education is a fundamental building block not only for economic growth, but for working towards a just and peaceful continent.
l In this way, Africa’s education systems and economic prospects are inextricably linked. In addition to creating viable opportunities for Africa’s increasingly youthful population and imparting skills, achieving targeted levels of economic growth will depend greatly on innovation and technology which are driven directly and indirectly by science and tertiary education.
Investments in higher education yield high returns of up to 21% in Africa, the highest in the world. Data shows that a one-year increase in average tertiary education levels would eventually yield up to a 12% increase in gross domestic product.
The potential of higher education to contribute to Agenda 2063 and the SDGs is explicitly acknowledged in both agendas. However, to realise this potential, profound and transformative changes in the higher education sector are imperative.
l Africa needs to enrol more students. Although there has been massive growth in enrolments, fewer than 10% of young people in Africa are enrolled in higher education — compared to the global average of 26%. Africa also needs to produce more PhDs who can contribute to the science and innovation agendas needed to promote development.
However, out of the already small pool of enrolled students, only 9,3% are enrolled for postgraduate programmes. Under current conditions, universities across the continent do not have the human, financial or physical resources to expand the provision of higher education at the scale needed despite the obvious necessity of doing so.
l At the same time, there is an urgent need to combat increasing graduate unemployment. Despite the apparent contradiction of too few graduates and high graduate employment, the reality is that degrees awarded do not necessarily align with promising career paths.
African universities have traditionally prepared students for public sector jobs, neglecting the needs of the private sector. Given that the private sector is expected to absorb most university graduates in the future, this is an important hurdle to overcome. Solving this situation is a collective responsibility which will require improved and expanded collaboration between higher education and governments, in partnership with the private sector.
l Africa needs to stimulate transformational entrepreneurship. Of the 10 million to 12 million young newcomers to the labour market each year, only three million find decent, sustainable work. A significant mind shift is needed — rather than identifying themselves solely as job-seekers, African youth need to identify their potential to be job creators.
Although Africa is the region reporting the most positive attitudes towards entrepreneurship, African businesses have some of the highest rates of discontinuance in the world, and on average countries still lack the regulatory good practices needed to stimulate business, particularly in the vital agribusiness sector. Much more must be done to support entrepreneurship in Africa if the lofty ideals for its contribution to development are to be realised.
Time for action
The time for action is now. High-level political support for higher education is currently at an apex. The first African Higher Education Summit, held in Senegal in March 2015, drew leaders from government, academia, multilateral organisations and the private sector across the continent, who worked together to devise a unified plan for strengthening the higher education system on the continent towards meeting its mandate.
The result of the gathering was a declaration outlining steps to improve the higher education system on the continent. Following the summit, several high-level strategic actions have been taken in support of its implementation:
l The Committee of 10 African Heads of State and Government was established and held its first meeting during November 2018. The committee is currently chaired by President Macky Sall of Senegal and includes two representatives from each geographic region in Africa.
l Subsequently, the African Economic Platform was established in 2017 in Mauritius, and institutionalised a new annual platform for African leaders and created an avenue for dialogue among a range of sectors, including the African political leadership, business leaders in the private sector and intellectuals.
Impact of expanded partnerships
Increased partnerships between governments, the private sector and higher education are expected to yield positive and mutual benefits for all stakeholders. In the first instance, partnerships can deliver research for societal change. Breakthroughs in transdisciplinary science which influence development and sustainability have knock-on benefits for all sectors. However, funding research with the scope and scale to address grand challenges requires long-term commitment to significant amounts of financing.
Governments are increasingly accepting the important role that science, technology and innovation can play in national development.
As governments increase their funding for research of national relevance, industries are also being called on to take up the charge and work with higher education to fund and test innovative solutions.
In the second instance, partnerships can help in transforming teaching and learning. Curriculum transformation — both in terms of content and mode of delivery — is fundamental to higher education’s ability to train workplace-ready graduates. Partnerships between the private sector and higher education are one of the most successful models to catalyse teaching and learning reform.
Equally important, partnership with the private sector remains the most feasible opportunity for students to acquire real-world experience and develop skills through internships, work placements and experiential learning.
Preparing the youth for careers in entrepreneurship has not historically been the focus of higher education, and if these institutions hope to empower graduates with the necessary skills, partnerships with government and the private sector will be required.
As a supplement to formal teaching and learning, the private sector can provide hands-on practical exposure to students and can serve as mentors to emerging entrepreneurs. Investment capital, for example, seed funding or low interest loans are other vehicles for the private sector to work with government and higher education to enable the potential of Africa’s youth and entrepreneurs.Transformative partnerships
To leverage the multiplier effects of partnerships to achieve development goals, governments, higher education and the private sector each have discernible, but interrelated roles to play.What we as the higher education sector would like to see from governments and policy-makers is that they:l Keep the ship steady. Policy-makers need to ensure predictable, stable funding in line with commitments.
l Foster enabling policy environments for the business sector to support responsible, inclusive and sustainable business practices. This includes creating conducive regulatory environments for income-generating engagements between higher education and the private sector.
l Leverage tax revenues and incentives to stimulate partnerships, including considering tax benefits for businesses investing in higher education.
l Grant universities the autonomy to operate and form partnerships within appropriate accountability structures.
l Facilitate mobility on the continent between businesspeople and academics by minimising visa requirements or making the issuing of visas much easier.
l Support and participate in structured dialogue and partnership to promote the above approaches.
We are looking to the private sector to:
l Invest financially in high potential research projects and infrastructure projects;
l Support and engage in dialogue platforms that explore the potential benefits of collaboration, and invest time and expertise by serving on advisory boards or science-business innovation councils, for example the African Business-Higher Education Council recently established by the African Development Bank;
l Collaborate with academic institutions to create opportunities for internships, placements and a wide range of creative activities that lead to curriculum reform, promote real-world engagement and 21st Century skills attainment; and
l Invest in student loan and bursary schemes through financial contributions and offer mentoring opportunities.
On our side, we in the higher education sector need to:
l Rethink and redefine the role of the research university as a critical pillar of the development agenda and acknowledge the potential of government support and private sector partnerships in realising this vision;
l Establish advisory boards (or science-business innovation boards) which include executives from relevant industries to position our universities for relevance, and to create a space for dialogue and priority setting on how to strengthen the science base and innovative capacity;
l Pilot and monitor innovative models for partnership — such as multidisciplinary institutes — that stimulate partnerships with the private sector and drive cutting-edge curricula; andl Finally, we need to focus on strong leadership, employ staff who understand business and incentivise academics to bridge the gap between the private sector and higher education.
At the University of Pretoria, we are committed to playing our part in establishing strong partnerships for impact with government and the private sector.
Four specific strategies have been identified to strengthen the university’s international profile and visibility as it relates to research linkages. These are (i) to align international partnerships with institutional research themes and areas of research strength, (ii) to strategically and synergistically increase the number of active international research partnerships, (iii) to increase the number of international students at postgraduate levels, and (iv) the active recruitment of postdoctoral fellows.
Our primary mechanism for enabling our partnership strategy is our purpose-built Future Africa campus where we promote transdisciplinary research excellence and foster the development of research networks, partnerships and training at an advanced level.
Future Africa’s research programmes are based on the aims which underpin its ethos and values, namely: sustainability and equity. Future Africa represents, through its visible presence and its collaborative approach, an invitation to all sectors of society to partner with us to contribute to unlocking the potential of Africa.
Professor Kupe is vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa. This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Australia-Africa Universities Network Annual Forum and AGM 2019 held on September 2 at the University Club of Western Australia.