A regional conference entitled “African-Norwegian Partnerships in Academic Capacity Building at Crossroads: Achievements, Experience and the Way Ahead” was held on 17 and 18 January 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This forum was intended to closely engage the Norwegian policy makers and the African higher education community as the Agency is introducing new programs while phasing out the old ones.
Norwegian development cooperation has been known for its long-term commitment, shared ownership and generous support to capacity building in higher education in Africa. The fact that the organization has organized events in different countries of the region to engage all the stakeholders is a further testimony to these qualities.
The Trigger: The Non-Existent “Bachelors Gap”
One of NORAD's officers introduced a new phrase called the “Bachelors Gap” to describe the needs at the undergraduate level that the Agency may consider supporting in Africa. An earlier statement by a vice-chancellor, from a country with only one university, in favor of giving priority to the postgraduate education was discounted as “wrong”.
The “Bachelors Gap” was discussed and described as “marginal” to Africa's capacity building effort— African higher education needs external support more at a graduate than undergraduate level to address the deep capacity building challenges.
The Argument: Bachelors Glut
While the enrollment ratio still hovers around 5 percent, with considerable disparity by countries, the continent has made remarkable strides in expanding programs, liberalizing the higher education system, and diversifying the delivery mode. For instance, Kenya and Uganda have increased their enrollment from 10,000 in the early nineties to more than 100,000. Ethiopia, which has shown phenomenal growth, has expanded its public institutions from 2 in early 1990s to 31 now, increasing its enrollment to over 400,000. Much of Africa has already moved from a Bachelors Gap to a “Bachelors Glut” in the last decade creating considerable concern about quality, unemployment and underemployment.
For the region as a whole, the most common higher education challenges include overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid and poorly prepared faculty, shortage of qualified faculty, low research capacity, dilapidated infrastructure and buildings, and lack of resources (such as laboratories, consumables and chemicals), and brain drain. In many newly opened universities (and also a good number in the “old” ones), many academics are neither adequately trained, nor prepared, nor competent enough to teach or do research. Even in those institutions where such a cohort exist, other issues hamper higher education quality, innovation, and productivity. Thus a massive capacity building effort needs to be mounted to address these chronic challenges.
Observations and research confirms that more pressing need for support for postgraduate education and research. Scholarship opportunities also show that many African countries are interested more in Doctorate level training than the Masters—and even less so Bachelors. As a matter of relevance, the University of KwaZulu Natal, for instance, has embarked in a vigorous effort to ensure that all academic staff hold PhD in the next five years. Zimbabwe is also introducing new guidelines along the same lines.
The role of development partnerships should be to find a critical point where their interventions make a meaningful difference. In countries where multimillions have been spent on higher education expansion, the intervention needs to shift to critical areas that improve quality of teaching and build capacity in staff development and research and promote innovation. Even in countries with low enrollment rates, external support has more impact when focused on graduate education and research capacity. These are areas that better help vitalize the region's competitive edge in the global knowledge market place.
This is not to state that graduate education should be “unduly” favored at the expense of undergraduate education. The argument here is that with unprecedented expansion in undergraduate programs, the graduate programs have suffered and new external support should be dedicated to vitalizing it. Thus, the best approach to revitalizing the undergraduate programs, is building a stronger capacity at the graduate level that churns out competent graduates who will improve undergraduate quality, undertake research, generate knowledge, and pursue innovation.
Opinion Making: The Treacherous Track
In an editorial piece on this forum published in March 2010 “Policy Discourse vs. “Private” Opinions: The Urgent Need for African Higher Education Think Tanks  ” it was lamented how opinions of a powerful and not-well-informed individuals, instead of serious research and dialogue, by a competent, informed and concerned people and institutions continue to guide and shape policy discourse. The opinions and sentiments of individuals who cannot see far beyond their departments, let alone universities; their practice, let alone their fields and disciplines; their hobbies, let alone professional interest, have, unfortunately, increasingly become to dominate the scene.
The need for robust research, policy analysis, and information and communication hubs, once again, cannot be overemphasized, particularly given the rapid developments in the African higher education sector. In the absence of such institutions, populist voices and emotional languages become a trend, a policy and a discourse — to a great detriment to all.
Regardless of the rebuttal to the idea of a “Bachelors Gap”, some feel that no meaningful policy change will take place at the Agency. But, one may be encouraged by the response of the head of the delegation who concluded that the program will be “flexible” and that the organization will review its policy along with other sister organizations at home to respond to the comments and concerns. We are waiting, to see how this plays out.
According to NORAD's website , the Agency, intends to “help empower recipient countries to achieve their own development goals” and “produce and apply knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in order to improve development assistance”. On the basis of the facts and arguments stated above, the knowledge and policy of the Agency on higher education and capacity building need to be recalibrated, simply because it is not aligned with the Agency’s objective to empower “recipient countries to achieve their own [major] goals”.