“Good morning class!” “Good morning professor, how are you?” With these words teachers generally open teaching sessions in African classrooms, but today they were also the opening words at the Africa-Europe Conference on Higher Education Collaboration at the European Commission, 25 October 2019. In short, education fuels development. In sum, higher education for African Master and PhD students prepares the experts and leaders needed for the sustainable development of African countries.
While SDG4 – equal rights to education – is high up the global development agenda, it is not always clear how to tackle this challenge. What is clear is that we face not only the challenge of increasing access to education – including but not limited to Master and Doctoral education. But access alone does not do the job. We also need to ensure that we invest in the quality of education. Access is meaningless if that does not lead to the graduation of students who have started. And graduation is meaningless if the expertise obtained in the education does not compare to expertise obtained at similar peer institutions globally. And lastly, we need to be mindful about diversity and inclusiveness in access and completion of higher education, as for instance there are still very few women enrolled in higher education in Africa.
Taking the higher educational development debate a step further, we also need to review our research output. As Dr. Narciso Matos, Vice-Chancellor of the Polytechnic University of Mozambique nicely put in his keynote: “If you do not have Master and PhD programmes, you also do not develop capacity to have research”. A valid point, but while we’ve seen the number of African PhD graduates increase over recent years, we still notice that academic output in Africa is lagging behind. And increasing research output may take more than only investing in Master and PhD programmes.
When thinking about doctoral education development, a key element brought up to contribute to SDG4 is the need to cooperate and work in networks. Network building takes time, but once established it creates more sustainable and viable solutions for individual partners to improve and benefit from high quality academic programmes. An example Dr. James Jowi (Principal Education Officer at the East African Community Secretariat) mentioned is the African Centers of Excellence, developing doctoral education with a network of universities, serving the regional pool of doctoral students. Another example is the African Doctoral Academy run by colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch, hosting PhD students from a large African University network. By bringing a small number of PhDs from various African countries together in one African location, they create sufficient critical mass to offer high quality doctoral education. Yet, those are the excellent examples, which are not representative of othe overall landscape of doctoral education in Africa.
We also need to creatively think about capacity building and take ownership. There is an understanding that the number of PhD holders in Africa should increase. However, capacity building is most beneficial when used afterwards locally as well. But due to brain drain, many students educated abroad will not return to their home countries. Prof. Aryeetey from the African Research University Aliance (ARUA) today said that over the last decade, only 13% of the highly educated people trained abroad returned to their country of origin. As higher education in Africa matures, it is crucial to accept and push the concept of building capacity locally. That means governments must be willing to invest in higher education locally, offer the required quality and keep graduates engaged in academia after completion of their degree. As Prof. Suleiman Ramon-Yusuf (Deputy Executive Secretary of the National University Commission in Nigeria) said, that may mean offering PhD students salaries that allow them to also focus on their PhDs and offer academic staff career perspectives.
In this context, our project on the Community of Learning for African PhD students (CoLA) finds a niche in supporting this capacity building effort — indeed it was selected to be presented at the conference. In CoLA, we are working towards sharing our content and knowledge with a larger group of African doctoral students who are unable to physically study with us. The conference gave us the opportunity to meet and even join networks that can help us to integrate and embed our efforts with existing African initiatives. Hopefully, those institutions and their students will benefit from the materials offered on our platform. Investment in education takes time, so until local doctoral systems are well developed, there is space to team up with interested universities to serve their doctoral students.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / C.Mancigotti