Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Restoring African Higher Education

In ancient times, scholars journeyed to Africa to become educated. The noted Greek astronomer Ptolemy made his astronomical observations from Alexandria, Egypt, then a world center of learning, and the Greek mathematician Pythagoras studied for a time at a center of learning at Diospolis in Egypt. Much later, the university at Timbuktu in Mali was organized around three great mosques: Jingaray Ber, Sidi Yahya and Sankore. Closer to our time, African universities such as the University of Cape Town (South Africa), the University of Nairobi (Kenya), Makarere University (Uganda) and the University College, Ibaden (Nigeria) not only served students in their countries, but also their regions, the continent and even taught students from Western countries.

Unfortunately, a combination of factors has diminished the outstanding role played by African institutions of higher education. For example, a lack of resources for teachers has meant that on average, these universities are working with only 70% of the faculty required, and some are operating with as little as 30% of the necessary instructors. Tenuous connections to their communities have limited fundraising opportunities, and mismanagement has wasted monies that have been raised. Reliance on outside funding has meant that African scholars and their universities have not gotten the recognition they deserve.

The African Union wants to change all that. The AU plan would build a network of African institutions of higher education to focus on earth and life sciences, water and energy research, space technology, basic sciences and governance. The AU Commission for Human Resources, Science and Technology is now promoting this plan for a “Pan African University,” which originated in the 2006 report “Second Decade of Education for Africa.” But for this plan to work, Africa’s regional organization will not only need the cooperation of African institutions of higher learning, but also African governments and donors. This is a long-term project and not a one-year venture.

The brain drain robs the continent of thousands of scholars each year. Without the upgrading of its universities, this trend cannot be overcome. Western nations have greatly benefited from the African professionals who now live in our countries, but what we gain on the one hand we lose through the need to provide aid we wouldn’t have to provide if even some of those scholars and professionals could remain home and help solve their homeland’s problems.

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