Why investments in higher education and research in Africa are so important?

Higher education is the key to unlock sustainable development in Africa

Given the projected population growth for Africa by 2040, the continent must invest heavily in higher education to enable it to meet the high demand for education and decent work.

Rumana, a 26-year-old mother in Sudan, writing on her textbook. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

This is the seventh blog post published in 2018 as part of the collaborative effort launched in 2017 between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

After experiencing decades of challenges, higher education (HE) in Africa is presently perceived by key stakeholders as an indispensable component of development.

Higher education is the gateway to sustainable development for the African continent at all levels. For Africa to make effective and efficient use of its human and untapped natural resources, it needs quality higher education that will provide its citizens with the requisite skills and knowledge. However, ensuring quality higher education in the continent calls for massive financial investments.

For the past two decades, higher educational institutions (HEIs) in Africa have experienced a tremendous increase in student enrollment. Such an increase, coupled with financial constraint and continued loss of intellectual capital, militates against quality education. Globally, higher education is undergoing massive transformation and development every day. For African HEIs to benefit from such changes, there is an urgent need to build capacity of universities to pursue quality, innovative and demand-driven research.

Higher education is the pivot of research and innovation of every growing economy. Problem-oriented research facilitates economic growth because it provides the basis for industrialization and sustainable development. Africa is endowed with large quantities of untapped natural resources that should spearhead its development. These resources cannot be effectively maximized without proper investment in higher education and quality research.

The state of research in African higher education

Quality higher education and research are key drivers of change and socio-economic development of every society. Considering the rapid growth of African population coupled with developmental challenges, countries must increasingly strive to revitalize their research and innovation capability on the continent.

Even though higher education in the last decade has experienced tremendous increase in student enrollment, research and innovation, especially in the sub-Saharan region, it is still at its infancy. Universities are challenged by financial constraints, which militate against their capacity to function as expected with respect to their mission and objectives.

Attempts on the part of key stakeholders to meet the demand for HE is gradually affecting resource investment in research and innovation. However, academic staff are occupied with teaching and administrative activities leaving them little time for research-related activities.

Though the “publish or perish” policy has proven to be an effective way of encouraging academic staff to engage in research work, it has also diverted the focus of academics from conducting quality and demand-driven research to meet the criteria for publishing through top academic journals.

Similarly, post-graduate students who are expected to embark on cutting-edge research that should address developmental challenges, rather focus on simple and cheap research topics or problems that will ensure their graduation.  

These practices have contributed to make Africa the continent with the lowest academia-industry collaborated research.

The importance of investments in African higher education and research

African higher education and research are crucial for the continent’s development. Hence, key stakeholders and policy makers must channel resources to enhance the capacity of HEIs as well as promote action-oriented research.

Considering the projected population growth for Africa by 2040, it is clear that the continent must invest heavily in HE to enable it to meet the high demand for education and decent work. In addition, investment in higher education and research will help reduce unemployment and poverty as well as facilitate peace and prosperity.

Initiatives to promote investments in African higher education and research

  1. The Coalition for African Research and Innovation (CARI) is a sustainability platform championed by the African Academy of Sciences. CARI seeks to generate sustainable funding for project undertaken on science, technology and innovation.
  2. The Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) is an initiative launched in 2013 and led by 5 African countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Senegal) together with the World Bank. It seeks to address the systemic gaps in skills and knowledge in the Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (ASET) related fields. It also aims to build the capacity of African HEIs to train high quality technicians, engineers and scientists to meet the demands of African economies.
  3. There have been multiple regionally and internationally spearheaded initiatives aimed at capacitating the African higher education landscape in research, innovation and faculty (academics) development. These include but not limited to the African Union’s Pan-African University (PAU) and the World Bank’s Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) project. Many other initiatives funded through bi- and multilateral arrangements includes the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency(SIDA).
  4. Increasingly, there are institutions in Africa, which engage in inter-country academic and research cooperation around disciplines and fields. African Economic Research Consortium (AERC); Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM); Natural Products Research Network for East and Central Africa (NAPRECA); and African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) , are some of them. Such approaches have considerable advantages for mobilizing and utilizing resources, establishing and consolidating networks, expanding the scope of research and innovation as well as fostering opportunities for joint publications.

The way forward: commitment and ownership

As African leaders and major stakeholders strive to achieve the African Union’s vision of ‘The Africa We Want’ by 2063 and ensure a continent whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its youth, there must be conscious effort to prioritize investment in higher education and research.  African countries need to honor their commitments to raise research and development funds to 1% of their gross domestic product if they want their continent to take its rightful place in the global arena.

Finally, for meaningful and visible impact, there is need for long-term investment in decent facilities, seasoned academics; able and stable leadership and management; strategically agreed research themes; innovative delivery approaches; conducive social, economic and political climate; incentivized legal framework for creativity; and successful (inter)national cooperation and partnerships, among others.