Higher Education and the Public Good

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The Association for the Study of Higher Education announced the theme for its 2016 conference yesterday: Higher Education and the Public Good. This is timely, as today’s Inside Higher Education reports a study that found that doubling the number of universities in a region raises its GDP by about 0.5 percent. The effect was highest for the development of research-based universities with PhD programs, in established Western economies.

For PhD candidates like me, this is reassuring, because it indicates that markets expand as the availability of graduates with advanced degrees increases — i.e. there are jobs out there! This is certainly true in the developing world, where there are increasing efforts to attract qualified faculty from all over the world, to contribute to the growth of the knowledge economy.

But public good is not limited to economic growth.  In his seminal text titled ‘Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education‘ Walter McMahon argues that the benefits of higher education spillover into communities and societies in many different ways. Graduates are more likely to engage in community service, to educate their children and to raise the quality of life not only for their families but also for their neighbors and communities.

In 2015, I completed a case study investigating the social benefits for a selected group of teachers from all over Pakistan. As I interviewed graduates from the deserts of Sindh, the Himalayas of Northern Pakistan, the coastal regions of Balochistan and the metropolitan city of Karachi, I heard and saw the effects of their graduate degrees. The women talked about the hard-won respect of their communities and families, who came to them for advice not only about education but also about family matters. Women from mountainous Gilgit talked about the changes they had seen in the District Education Office; ten years ago, there were no women in the office and that day, I was speaking to a group of 6 women, all of whom worked for the Education department. One participant from Balochistan noted that he had bought a computer for his daughter and had insisted his sister go back to school to pursue a graduate degree. These are a few of the many stories I heard.

These teachers were leveraging the respect they had gained in their communities to bring about positive change. They volunteered their time to teach in other schools and to run workshops on gender and education, on completing college applications and on the importance of respecting diversity.

This then, is also public good and I hope that the conversations at ASHE will focus not only on the economy but also on the other social and private benefits of higher education.

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University Vice Chancellor calls for a more African university

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Inside Higher Education, the popular news and networking site for higher education enthusiasts like myself, recently posted an article about how African universities were perhaps just located in Africa but not really relevant to their communities.  The article reports a recent Times Higher Education Universities Summit for BRICS and emerging economies, where Malegapuru Makgoba, the retiring vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal said:

“There is a major debate in South Africa about whether we have any African universities or just universities located in South Africa”.

This is a problem faced not only by African universities but also by universities in most of the developing world. Colonists established universities to train an elite class to serve in their Empires. After independence, most universities continued to draw curricula from the global North and faculty were sent abroad (this practice continues today) for graduate education. The African university, like other universities in the global South, continued to mimic the Oxbridges and the Harvards in a variety of different ways. Most markedly, it is the curriculum that has not kept abreast of the needs of the Continent.

Although the recent announcement about the establishment of the Pan-African University indicates a move in the right direction, only time will tell whether there will be a genuine shift towards more relevant curricula. More importantly, it is the often conflicting goals of research and service that will need to come together in a more harmonized fashion so that community needs are served whilst excellence in (relevant) research continues to be a goal.

Capacity, quality and access — some regional solutions?

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I recently read an article in the University World News about Kenya’s plan to add 20 public universities (bill yet to be finalized). I thought to myself – wow! They’re serious about higher education — but how will they do it, and what happens to quality? And where, pray tell, will the faculty come from? Kenya has strong faculty unions and unlike other East African countries, has managed to keep wages competitive for public university faculty. It is also requiring faculty to complete their doctoral degrees so that research capacity can be increased. However, what happens when 20 public universities are suddenly established? Where will the faculty come from?

The article makes reference to the Pan-African University, an initiative of the Association of African Universities so I went to the AAU website to figure out what this was all about. The only mention I could find, was that AAU was hiring Rectors/Provosts. But in that call for applications, was a description of this university:

The Pan African University (PAU) is a continental academic network of higher education institutions of excellence for postgraduate studies and advanced research. It is a flagship project of the African Union Commission (AUC), established by the decision of the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the African Union. The PAU’s mission is to exemplify excellence and nurture quality in African Higher Education and Research. This will be done through world class programmes at Masters and PhD level, organized under five thematic areas, and hosted in existing Universities in AU Member States.

The five thematic institutes of the Pan African University are hosted as follows: 

  1. Western Africa: PAU Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, including Agriculture and Health at University of Ibadan in Nigeria
  2. Eastern Africa: PAU Institute of Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya
  3. Central Africa: PAU Institute of Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences at University of Yaoundé II in Cameroon
  4. Northern Africa: PAU Institute of Water and Energy Sciences (including Climate Change) at the Université Abou Bekr Belkaid Tlemcen in Algeria  
  5. Southern Africa: PAU Institute of Space sciences to be hosted by a country to be identified

Once I read this blurb on the PAU, I began to see the connection with Kenya’s move to create thematic universities — because, like the Pan-African University,  Kenya hopes to create different strengths in different regions. Universities that are near Lake Victoria, for example, might focus on programs relevant to people living in that area.

There are so many advantages to creating these Institutes around the Continent. The first is of course, the sharing of scarce resources – the scarcity of qualified faculty as well as the availability of financial resources. Different regions can specialize in different areas so that the wheel is not reinvented in every country. The second is the funding and profile boost to the chosen country, university and region. The third advantage is the development of capacity in programs that are relevant to the Continent but are not necessarily existing areas of strengths. Water and Energy Sciences is a great example of a very relevant but scarcely found resource on the continent. And finally, not enough can be said about the advantages of student and faculty mobility. Although Africa is often referred to as if it were a homogenous region, it is very diverse indeed. When I worked in East Africa, I discovered that students coming to Tanzania from within the region were continually surprised at the differences in culture, practices, beliefs and languages. So student mobility could encourage a little bit more understanding of the different cultures and traditions on the Continent.

But I also have some questions about the Pan-African University:

1) Some countries already have greater resources and capacities than others. Does it make sense to start with those countries that already have a better higher education infrastructure than others (Kenya and Nigeria both come to mind)?

2) How have these Institutes planned for sustainability, in terms of faculty as well as financial resources?

3) What linkages to the industry and community of the region will be planned by each Institute? If the program being established is relevant to the region, then involving the community could have significant multiplier effects.

4) How will higher education in countries such as Tanzania be impacted by the creation of these Institutes? For example, will they lose all their qualified faculty to these programs? In East Africa, universities lose their faculty and qualified staff to the programs funded by international agencies or foundations. Are these well-funded Institutes also going to drain resources from those who are already impoverished? Or can strategies be put into place to create win-win situations, such as regular visiting scholars and exchange programs?

5) Are we losing sight of the humanities? I was very happy to see the one Institute in Central Africa on Governance, Humanities and the Social Sciences. But perhaps Faculties of Arts and Sciences would be one way of bringing together the different lenses for society to function in a cohesive way whilst contributing to the economy.

I have more questions than answers even as I admire and applaud the regional initiatives in higher education in Africa.

A look at some regional initiatives

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Although there are many academic alliances between universities in the global North and universities in Africa, regional and Pan-African initiatives are also on the rise.

Two examples that come to my mind are the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) and the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA). The IUCEA brings together higher education institutions in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Similarly, SARUA aims to create a regional higher education sector for its 57 member countries. These include Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, South Africa and Tanzania. Regional initiatives have the potential to create mutually-beneficial relationships that strengthen the higher education system without uni-directional flows of funding, faculty or students.

However, not all higher education systems within each region are equal. For example, South Africa is one of the wealthier and more economically stable countries in SADC and so quite often, South Africa enters into agreements with other regional partners to ‘train’ their faculty (see Jansen, 2008 for more details). Similarly, within East Africa, Kenya has been the most economically stable and has invested substantially in strengthening the capacity and quality of its higher education system.

Individual universities across the continent may also be more eager to invest in international linkages with universities in the global North, in order to gain prestige or benefit from the capacity in Science and Technology education. A lot of funding is available for such linkages, from the UK, the US and other countries in the global North. Thus these partnerships become more financially attractive than regional partnerships, which are limited in their sources of funding. Increasingly, the Association of African Universities is becoming a key player in Pan-African university support and development – AAU conferences can attract faculty and ‘Development’ and ‘Foundation’ staff from all over the world!

So regional or international? What are the pros and cons? It’s a balancing act for sure!!

If you want to read some more about South African higher education:

Jansen, J., McLellan, C., & Greene, R. (2008). South africa. In D. Teferra, & J. Knight (Eds.), Higher education in Africa (pp. 386-420). Boston: Center for International Higher Education, Boston College and Association of African Universities.

Re-skilling African graduates

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My last post talked about the governance of abundance, put forth by Professor Juma as a means of thinking about development in Africa.  In April this year, the World Bank reported that it would finance 19 new Centers of Excellence in West and Central Africa. The purpose of these Centers would be to create hubs for specialized study in fields related to Science and Technology, Agriculture and Health. The World Bank announcement focuses on the need for graduates in this field in order to retain some of the economic benefits of oil and mineral extraction (with a brief mention of lack of health workers). We could also view this initiative as a means to incentivizing the governance of abundance rather than a governance of scarcity.

The World Bank focuses on the scarcity of skilled workers in Africa, as does a more recent Inside Higher Education blog. Yes, the continent does not have quality, skilled workers in Science and Technology  but it does also have a huge amount of natural resources that require a cadre of skilled labor to manage effectively. This sounds like it is just semantics but actually reflects a different way of looking at the same problem.  In his seminal book The Strategy of Economic Development, Hirschman argues that the “fundamental problem of development consists in generating and energizing human action in a certain direction” (p.25); i.e. better decision making can have positive effects on a country’s development.  Therefore, in my opinion, investing in the development of skilled labor is a great start and reflects the global emphasis on creating a knowledge economy. However, at a more local and regional level, an emphasis on improving the processes of decision-making, for example by improving management practices or reducing corruption, can also play a very important role in promoting development on a national and regional level. For example, the Association for African Universities can play a very important role in bringing together the learning from these Centers of Excellence project, so that countries in the region can continue to learn from each other in order to continue to contribute to regional development once World Bank funds are all gone.

Managing abundance

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Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Professor Calestous Juma talking to an audience of faculty, staff and students at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. His words echo around in my head every day, as I go digging deeper into African higher education, its histories, struggles and triumphs. Providing examples from Africa, Professor Juma urged universities to think about the governance of abundance rather than the governance of scarcity. The Agenda 2063 of the African Union Commission also emphasizes the abundance of resources in the continent: “Africa is endowed with approximately 12 percent of the world’s oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and vast water, other mineral and forest resources.” (p.32). The development and promotion of pan-African values and “taking charge of the African narrative” (p.35) are listed among the key enablers of this Agenda.

So what are some things that universities could do to reinvent themselves in order to harness this abundance? Juma emphasized the need for research partnerships, innovative programs to meet development needs and the recruitment and retention of faculty and students who were interested in innovation for the developing world (rather than in continuing status quo).

My own experiences in Tanzania and in East Africa tell me that the African continent has the advantage of being able to leap-frog technology to drive innovation. Universities also have experience drawing on the local as well as the global to expand their influence as well as their sources of funding. However, what remains to be seen is whether universities can become more adept in “taking charge of the African narrative” rather than being swept along the “globalization is all good” narrative.

More on globalization next time.