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.

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