‘Diversify and decolonise Africa’s higher education systems’

The African higher education system is in urgent need of diversification and differentiation if it is to meet the human resource needs and generate the knowledge necessary to create employment for millions of youth – and spur on development.

While most African countries have created new public universities in the ‘image’ of existing ones, the aim being to increase enrolment purely for political reasons, others have upgraded polytechnics and other tertiary institutions to universities, killing both the diversity and specialisation needed to grow the sector.

This model of growing higher education has failed and, as a result, student enrolment in universities is increasing “very slowly and completion rates remain relatively low”. The poor quality of secondary education, the main pipeline for universities, is also contributing to the challenges.

At the same time, graduate unemployment has also remained high, said Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities. He spoke at the 13th Annual Conference of the African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE) held from 4-6 October in Zanzibar.

A higher education system that is rich in terms of diversity and differentiation would allow different types of specialised universities, with different layers of training operating at various levels, he emphasised.

“When higher education is well diversified and well differentiated it then becomes more appropriate to refer to that education system as ‘tertiary’ or ‘post-secondary’ and this has happened in many countries around the world, including the United States, Germany and South Korea,” he observed.

Giving examples, he said that such a system would comprise universities that are research-strong, with a strong emphasis on quality teaching, and with a strong element of community engagement.

This would also mean having universities specialised in fields such as agriculture, health, education or technology, with well-defined tertiary technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, colleges.

Such a system would cater for students with different interests and different abilities while going a long way in meeting the needs of the labour market, both private and public sectors, while also addressing the personnel and development needs of often-neglected rural areas, explained Mohamedbhai, who is also the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.

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