"The number of students at sub-Saharan universities has jumped more than 500 percent in 20 years, from 350,000 in 1975 to an estimated two million today," says Kenneth Walker in the Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2009. This has exacerbated an on-going crisis in African higher education - the quality of the education offered.
The weekly Times Higher Education in their annual surveys ranking world universities lists only one university in Africa in the top 200 - the University of Cape Town. The University of Botswana has for a number of years anticipated that it would be ranked in the top 500. This has not happened.
As we have noted before rankings may be a tricky business. According to University World News the web rankings of the Cybermetrics Lab of Spain's National Research Council does assessments by continent. In Africa, South Africa has placed 11 universities in the top 20; Egypt four, and the rest are one each from Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal and Tanzania. Again Botswana is not there - but the surprise is that the Polytechnic of Namibia is ranked in the top 20 in Africa. The University of Namibia ranks 26 and the University of Botswana falls at 41 out of 100. But compared to 5,999 other universities around the world, the rank of the University of Botswana is a dismal 5,375. [For these see http://www.webometrics.info/top100_continent.asp?cont=africa.]
What is being done elsewhere in Africa to raise quality? Besides the tremendous variety of internal initiatives across Africa, there are also externally supported programmes. One is the "Partnership for Higher Education in Africa" described by Karen Theroux, also in the Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2009. The Carnegie Foundation in New York has spearheaded a collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation. Three more major foundations have recently joined this initiative. Together, seven foundations have committed at the start for the next five-year plan resources equivalent in value to over P1.4 billion [in the last 10 years they have contributed over P2.6 billion to higher education in Africa].
They have not previously worked together at this scale, as in the past they followed autonomous paths. This collaborative is in addition to what they are doing individually - activities that include bilateral or joint agreements with universities in Africa - that will continue. Though Botswana has yet to be a focus of these new programmes, there is much to be learned from their direction and their range of activities.
Partnership for Higher Education in Africa has as its overall objective the strengthening of African universities. This is to be achieved, in addition to the foundations various bilateral programmes at African universities, by first following agreed on criteria. The four guidelines are: comprehensive public policy reform; embracement of innovation and the new technologies; real strategic planning and demonstrated commitment to support national development by helping to build economic and social change.
The Partnership intends to alter the perception of African universities, both on the continent and globally - the result of poor performance and damaging rankings like those presented above. The Carnegie Corporation's Director of Higher Education in Africa programme, Narciso Matos, says: "It's not about counting heads, or about how many students we have trained, how many study programmes have been organised or how many computers we have provided. What's equally important is the change of mood, of attitude, of perception about education, about the role of universities, our role in promoting dialogue, improving the relationship between government and institutions in the country."
The Partnership grants are aimed at supporting strategies that enable universities, "to produce a new generation of scholars, analysts, scientists, technologists, teachers, public servants and entrepreneurs." Most significantly, Joyce Moock of the Rockefeller Foundation observed, "that the role of universities was to anticipate the future." She went on to note that they need, "translational capacity - the ability to turn knowledge to use. This encompasses job creation and job attainment ... the whole enterprise of investment needs an atmosphere where new talent can flower."
Next week Issues will look at some of the partnership programmes in neighbouring universities, particularly in Southern Africa.