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Higher Education in SADC: A New Focus (Piyushi Kotecha)

After three decades of attrition and neglect, higher education in southern Africa, and in the sub-Saharan region, is on the move. The last few years have seen encouraging stirrings of new life, along with a growing awareness of the importance of effective higher education in the fortunes of developing nations and regions.
In July 2009, at the World Conference on Higher Education organised by UNESCO in Paris, special attention was given to ‘the challenges and opportunities for the revitalisation of higher education in Africa’. The conference recognised higher education as ‘an important tool for the development of the continent’, and recognised that universities would be more effective in this task through collaborations at the national, regional and international levels. Indeed, the conference saw higher education as ‘an instrument for regional integration’.
In the SADC region, these imperatives had been addressed a year before the Paris Conference. In 2008, the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) published the first detailed baseline research into higher education in the 14-nation region. The research provided a country-by-country profile of SADC higher education, and looked in particular at funding frameworks, the state of public science, interactions between universities and the private sector, and the key areas for action concerning the revitalisation of higher education in the region. Significantly, the title given to this research was Towards a Common Future.
Although well known, it is worth restating some of the reasons for the stagnation of sub-Saharan higher education in general and in southern Africa in particular. Most SADC universities date back to the final few years of colonial rule as authorities belatedly attempted to prepare an educated elite capable of administering a country. Once independent, the new African nations placed a premium on developing higher education, and of developing it further than the narrow focus of teacher training and agriculture that had pertained in the last years of colonialism.
But by the mid-1970s, the world economy was in poor shape, and the economies of African countries, largely dependent on the sale of raw materials to the industrialised nations, suffered most. Funding to higher education was drastically reduced. Even after the intervention in the 1980s of the internationally funded economic structural adjustment programmes (ESAP), universities fared poorly. Higher education was given a low priority and classed as a luxury according to the ‘rates of return’ developmental analysis current during the 1980s and well into the 1990s.
Since then, international thinking has undergone an about-turn. The world had simply become too small and interdependent for the struggles of one nation or region to be ignored by those nations and regions that were comparatively better off. By the turn of the 21st century a new role for higher education was being envisaged. Such concepts as ‘globalisation’, ‘information technology’ and ‘knowledge economies’ began to impact sharply on conventional notions regarding the role of universities.
As information society theorist Manual Castells observed in 2001: ‘If we take seriously the analyses pointing towards the formation of a new economy, in which the ability to generate and process information is key to productivity, it will not be possible to integrate Third World countries in a dynamic world economy without creating the necessary infrastructure in higher education.’
The international funding agencies have not been slow to adjust to the changing imperatives. In 2008, the World Bank was stating that ‘the key to economic success in a globalised world lies increasingly in how effectively a country can assimilate the available knowledge and build comparative advantage’. 
Along with other major funders, the World Bank is re-engaging. Towards the end of this month (March 2011) the World Bank organised an international workshop, Sustainable Financing and Governance of Regional Initiatives in Higher Education in Africa, in Burkina Faso. The objective was to assemble donors, multilateral institutions, the private sector to share experiences on building excellence in higher education, science, technology, innovation to work together to identify innovative ways to finance existing and future regional projects in Africa.
At a continental level, the African Union advanced a 10-year (2006-2015) higher education action plan aimed at increasing intra-African collaboration. This supra-national policy-making trajectory is an increasing international trend, triggered principally by the Bologna Process in Europe, which has reframed the higher education architecture there. The rationale behind the Bologna Process, first established in 1999, has been to create a European Higher Education Area premised on qualifications, quality and mobility frameworks. Many regions, including Africa, are analysing and emulating the Bologna Process in their own contexts. 
Due to these and other influences, traditional perceptions of universities are being forced along a path of change. No longer are universities places reserved for those who can afford the fees, or simply for individual advancement. No longer are they the ivory towers where intellectuals only dream their dreams and scientists are able to differentiate between ‘applied’ research and the more prestigious ‘pure’ or ‘blue-sky’ varieties. Universities have found themselves being propelled towards the centre of national and regional stages, and asked to redefine their roles.
There are clear signs that a new energy and sense of urgency is emerging from the higher education sector in many parts of the SADC region, as reflected in the following selection of news items posted to the web in February alone:
  • The Angolan Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology has met with the Director General of UNESCO and submitted an application for the establishment in Angola of a Centre of Excellence for training in earth science and sustainability in Africa.
  • Botswana’s 2nd Tertiary Education Fair will take place towards the end of March 2011, with exhibits from the country’s tertiary institutions, relevant government departments and parastatals, private businesses, and financial institutions that are increasingly called upon to provide student financial aid.
  • The University of Malawi has unveiled plans to increase its intake from about 2 000 students currently to 15 000 by 2016 to cope with the increasing number of Malawians requiring tertiary education.
  • A centre of excellence in information and communication technology is to be established at the University of Namibia. Telecommunications giant, Telecom Namibia, will fund the initiative.
  • The Institute of Science and Technology in Mbeya (Tanzania) has been urged by the government to ‘get rid of the obstacles’ currently thwarting its attempts to become a fully-fledged university of science.
  • The Zambian government will soon begin construction of a R43,5-million ‘state-of-the-art’ university in Chinsali in the country’s Northern Province designed to improve the academic competencies of mathematics and science school teachers.
  • Zambia’s three public universities have placed proposals before government for the installation of improvements to Internet access and connectivity between local and regional universities. They are also lobbying, through their own creation, the Zambia Research and Education Network, for access to US and European library and digitised resources.
Several themes emerge from these examples: an emphasis on expansion; an acknowledgement of of post-schooling pathways; an emphasis on science; and a realisation that information and communication technology is crucial for institutions of higher learning in the new global context. What is needed now is an overarching strategy that will channel these themes and new energies into optimal regional directions.
Just over a year ago (in March 2010) a meeting of the SADC ministers responsible for Education and Training was held in Kinshasa in the DRC. At this meeting, ministers adopted a report that outlined five priority areas for higher education, arising from research undertaken earlier by SARUA. The ministers mandated the SADC secretariat to establish a Committee on Higher Education to develop, with the participation of SARUA ‘a regional plan of action for the revitalisation of SADC higher education’.
The new energies in SADC higher education, and the focused ways in which they are being channelled, provide cause for optimism. But sight should not be lost of the huge challenges that several decades of stagnation have engendered.
Piyushi Kotecha is the Chief Executive of the Southern African Regional Universities Association, (SARUA)