Worldwide, Africa’s visibility is still low on the higher education horizon. Australia is no exception – the lack of attention to Africa, (relative to Asia, and especially China) ignores its size and diversity (55 nations, with a total population of 1 billion), the vast potential of the continent, and major progress, including in education. One example is the striking growth in higher education enrollments in recent decades, from a total of around 200,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1970, to approximately 10,000,000 currently. Of these, some 9 per cent are graduate students.
But there are still significant challenges: for African development to bear fruit, there is a need for many more skilled personnel. Access of course is highly uneven, yet, even in South Africa, of the more than 40,000 applicants that were received by the University of Pretoria in 2014, for example, some 10,000 were admitted; but as lamented by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, at the recent Australia Africa Universities Network (AAUN) conference, many qualified applicants could not be accommodated.
A further challenge is that many students need financial assistance; but with state support declining in real terms, this is a delicate balance. Currently, no student is turned away from Pretoria University on financial grounds, for example, but clearly there are limits to this generous strategy. A recent study of 11 South African universities found only 5 to be in a solid financial state.
A related challenge is the tension between differentiation and equity, one that resonates across the continent, but particularly in South Africa, with its legacy of Apartheid. While many systems worldwide have accepted that not all institutions can be equally funded, and have thus made strategic choices about where and how to invest limited funds, South Africa’s history in which black higher education institutions were chronically under-resourced, has made debates about strategic choice impossible. The current GDP per capita of around US$4,000 obscures the fact that black income averages only U$2,300 per capita, while white is around US$17,000. Or that 14 million South Africans depend on social welfare, which are much lower than the black average.
To differing degrees, brain drain continues to be a substantial problem, despite efforts to reverse the trend. Continued progress throughout the region will depend on the retention of talent at African universities. A 2010 joint study on Universities and Economic Development in Africa by CHET and HERANA, and related studies by the African Development Bank, reaffirmed that universities are an ‘engine for development’ across Africa.
Hence the fact that, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where enrolment ratios remain below 5 per cent compared with 40-50% in much of the developed world, this limit constitutes a clear brake on further development. The related disestablishment of specialist research institutes in recent decades, in areas such as medicine, agriculture and communication, only added to the problem, while illnesses such as AIDS continue to take a heavy toll, especially among black Africans, including the educated.
Partnership with Australia
In partnership with domestic efforts, international support for African higher education is helping to make a difference. A modest response from Australia is helping to turn the tide. The Australia Africa Universities Network, launched in mid 2012, aims to provide advice to the Australian government, strengthen research partnerships with African institutions, develop capacity building programmes, and produce joint policy solutions and position papers. AAUN has prioritized Food Security, Mining and Minerals, Public Sector Reform, Public Health, and (Higher) Education as core areas of work. Seven Australian and seven African universities comprise a Steering Group, while the overall network has 11 Australian members and 8 African (from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, Malawi, Uganda and Ghana). It is designed to accommodate up to 20 HEIs, with equal numbers from each side.
The recent conference at the University of Pretoria, builds on established relationships. 7,760 students from Sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in Australian education in 2013, although this has declined from a peak of almost 13,000 in 2009. (The largest 5 countries were in descending order, Mauritius, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Africa). There are also more than 55 existing partnerships between universities in Australia, and Africa, involving student exchange and collaborative research. As well, there are training programmes in areas such as Teacher Training, and Hospitality.
Several potential projects were outlined, including graduate employability; mapping existing AAUN partnerships and identifying gaps and priorities; and how to develop the next generation of academics and researchers. Each of these projects has attracted a team leader and participants from both sides, who will coordinate and plan the projects, including moving from seed funding to project funding. The next AAUN meeting, in Canberra in July will monitor the projects, and significant progress is hoped for on most fronts by mid 2015.