The European Higher Education Area is now a reality. It materialised in 2010 after a decade of active consultation and collaboration among all European higher education stakeholders. The whole process was dynamically led by the Ministers responsible for Higher Education and strongly supported by the European Universities Association. It is quite remarkable that the 47 signatories of the Bologna Process have been able to implement such a major and fundamental set of reforms in their higher education institutions. Yet, these countries, although European, are quite diverse in their size, national language, culture, history and higher education system. This inevitably raises the question whether the Bologna reforms, or at least the fundamental ideas behind the reforms, can be applied to other parts of the world.
The majority of African states are former colonies of European countries. And most African higher education institutions have established partnerships with those in Europe. It is not surprising therefore that African higher education institutions and policy makers have been closely following the developments in Europe. Indeed, the July 2009 Communiqué of the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, in its section on Higher Education in Africa, mentions the need to develop an African Higher Education and Research Area. That was subsequently followed up by the Working Group on Higher Education of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA/WGHE) which convened a brainstorming workshop of African higher education experts and representatives of key Pan-African organisations to explore the concept of creating an African Higher Education and Research Space. The workshop, which was held in Accra, Ghana in December 2010, had the support of the African Union Commission and was hosted by the Association of African Universities, so all the major African higher education stakeholders were on board.
The workshop acknowledged that Africa shares with Europe many common drivers for educational reform (expansion, employability, globalization, skills shortage, etc.), but at the same time important differences exist (demography, quality of academic infrastructure, local challenges, etc.). So, while Africa could learn from the European experience, it should not simply imitate the Bologna Process in creating its own higher education and research space. The basic objectives of creating an African Higher Education and Research Space (AHERS) would be to strengthen the capacity of African higher education institutions through collaboration in teaching and research, to improve the quality of higher education and to promote academic mobility across the continent through the recognition of academic qualifications.
So in what ways may the envisaged AHERS be different from the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)? First of all, it was decided to refer to it as a ‘Space’ rather than an ‘Area’. This was not merely a matter of nomenclature but a deliberate attempt of signifying greater freedom and a wider area. Second, research would be an integral part of AHERS whereas in Europe two different entities, EHEA and European Research Area have been created. Development of research is vital for Africa and research cannot be divorced from higher education - one needs to reinforce the other. Third, there was as strong feeling that higher education must be all-inclusive and not restricted to universities. Higher education in the African context would therefore include all post-secondary education institutions that award a recognised degree, diploma or certificate. Fourth, due recognition must be given to regional higher education associations, many of which have already embarked on the process of harmonisation of higher education and promoting collaboration among the institutions through academic mobility in their respective region. Indeed, these regional associations could eventually become building blocks of the continental AHERS. Finally, AHERS must take into account the uniqueness of indigenous African cultures and values.
An important outcome of the Accra workshop was for ADEA/WGHE to commission an analytical study on the creation of AHERS. The terms of reference of the study, including the fields to be considered, the methodology to be adopted and the time frame were identified. The plan is to present the preliminary findings of the study at the Conference of Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents (COREVIP) of the Association of African Universities to be held in June 2011 under the theme “Strengthening the Space of Higher Education in Africa” – a theme that resonates with AHERS.