A recent leadership seminar that brought together rectors and vice-chancellors of African Universities in 17 countries highlighted the many challenges to building higher education in the region. Africa shares many challenges with other regions but also faces challenges that are particularly daunting in the region. Listening to this rich discussions over the course of three days one is reminded that those talented individuals who assume leadership of an institution are often accomplished scholars but few are adequately prepared for the task of managing such a complex institution in environments laden with constraints. But perhaps more striking is the extent to which they confront problems without the means to address them.
UNESCO data show that participation in higher education in Africa is less than 10%, the lowest (as percentage of the traditional age cohort) in the world. With the recognition that highly skilled human resources are critical to economic development, governments in nearly all African countries have implemented policies to expand access—building new universities while simultaneously increasing enrollment at existing universities. These decisions are political as well as economic but with little consideration to the practical implications of this vertiginous growth. This leaves university leaderships with the obligation to confront too many problems with too few resources. Increased participation is certainly a good thing yet when the increased number of students outpaces the expansion and improvement of facilities, the stage is set for growing frustration, protests and conflict. Classrooms lack places to sit and proper ventilation for the number of bodies crowded into them. Student dormitories (often referred to as “student hostels”) become overcrowded and even plumbing can’t keep up. Protests are almost inevitable.
It is, of course, easier to add students than faculty. There is a growing tidal wave of secondary school leavers arriving at the university gates but no corresponding wave of qualified professors with graduate degrees or research experience. Africa’s most talented scholars often earn graduate degrees abroad then remain there. Ironically, many universities then contract foreign professors at salaries higher than those paid to national hires in order to build academic reserves. One has to wonder about the rationality of this current cycle of loss and replacement and whether those salary premiums might be better spent keeping national talent at home in order to abate the exodus. Institutional leadership rarely has the discretion to negotiate salaries to attract needed academic talent as salaries are generally determined by national governments.
As a result of the outflow of talent, the slow production and difficulty of retaining new talent, universities often “make do” with lesser-qualified professors in the short-term. Yet, once entrenched, lecturers and professors often join unions that create obstacles to initiatives that would oblige teaching staff to improve their qualifications or meet performance requirements thus forcing institutional leadership into complicated dilemmas.
In these untenable circumstances, the leadership of individual institutions rarely has the necessary authority to make difficult decisions or to develop strategy appropriate and viable for local circumstances. In most of Africa, the national government limits the authority of local leadership and the autonomy of institutions. Central governments often make determinations for how a large part of the institutional budget can be allocated, leaving university leadership with little discretion. The result is serious constraints on institutional development and problem solving. Student fees (if there are any at public institutions), salaries, and infrastructure development may all be determined by the government with regard only to political exigencies.
Additionally, many governments limit resources further by making arbitrary decisions about Internet access, cutting off sites that range from YouTube to Skype. YouTube is no longer a domain that exists solely to entertain adolescents; an individual can attend an entire semester of Calculus at MIT for free at YouTube.com. Skype has become an important tool for collaborative research among scholars in different countries. With the Internet increasingly used as a pedagogical tool in higher education, these restrictions tie the hands of university leadership as well as teaching staff.
So, universities leadership is often left to solve all of the problems created by national policy but with very few tools or options at their disposal. Although the African Development Institute of the ADB (African Development Bank) is committed to providing leadership training for these key actors in higher education, how far can they succeed until there is rational political policy that provides African higher education with the autonomy and resources necessary to do the urgent work that needs to be done?
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