Bold African universities pushing boundaries; in one students take all their examinations without invigilators

There are already 50% more students per lecturer in sub-Saharan Africa than the global average.

THE Times Higher Education (THE) Africa universities summit ended Friday at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, with the main buzz of the event being the landmark new African university ranking.

READ: It’s here! Africa’s new university ranking so prepare to be shocked…and maybe not

Africa is now closing in on some 2,600 institutions of higher learning; some countries expanding more rapidly than others. Ethiopia for example, had two universities 23 years ago, today it has 33 public universities, four private ones and 59 colleges, bringing the total of its higher education institutions to 96. 

Whilst groups are coming together across the world to discuss the revitalisation of Africa’s higher education institutions, as many universities in Africa suffer from a lack of resources, promote elite selection, and perform poorly on knowledge production, there are a few African universities that are pushing the boundaries, redefining learning and setting trends. Or, even tackling old problems that no one seems in dealing with, even though their approach might not necessarily be cutting edge. One day, hopefully, there will be a ranking for this too.

We take a look at some of these innovative learning centres:

Ashesi University

Ashesi is a private, non-profit liberal arts university located in Ghana, West Africa. It aims to educate entrepreneurial leaders, with a conscience, it says. The institution was founded in 2002 by a visionary African, Patrick Awuah, to meet Africa’s urgent shortage of ethical, innovative, and entrepreneurial leaders. It seeks to create ethical leaders with critical thinking skills, a strong concern for others and the courage to transform their continent. 

Some of the steps it has been taking to achieve this include its exam honour code - where students take all their examinations without invigilators, meaning the students are responsible for observing honesty in exams. Even the design of the campus was made with environmental sensitivity; the roofs harvest rainwater, a bio-digester recycles waste for biogas used for cooking and all campus buildings are designed to make the most use of natural sunlight. 

African Rural University

One of the major critiques facing Africa’s higher education institutions today is that they do not provide equal access. This is particularly the case for women in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is estimated that there are only about 62 female students for every 100 male students. Established in 2006, the African Rural University is one of Uganda’s newest universities and the first all-women rural university in Africa. 

It aims to provide a university experience to a marginalised group, looking to transform them into effective rural development professionals. It focuses on developing skills in agriculture, business and leadership. Key to this process is having a curriculum that is relevant to the needs of rural families. 

African Virtual University

The issue of teaching quality is a grave concern for Africa’s higher education, particularly the loss of staff to universities abroad which offer better salaries and the low ratio of professional staff teaching in tertiary systems without PHDs. There are already 50% more students per lecturer in sub-Saharan Africa than the global average, which puts a strain on teaching quality.

One of the ways in which this is being tackled is through the establishment of virtual universities, such as the African Virtual University. This pan-African Intergovernmental Organisation, involving 18 African countries, is delivering programmes through information and communication Technologies. This not only means students in remote or isolated areas can access higher education courses, but it also allows African students to engage in real-time discussions with professors both on the continent and abroad. Since its inception in 1997 it has had 43,000 students.

International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering - 2iE

Even though science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also called STEM subjects) are crucial for fostering growth, these subjects are greatly neglected in higher education institutions. Fortunately there are some institutions which are bridging the gap. Located in Burkina Faso, the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2ie) is a research and training institute dedicated to innovation and specialising in water, energy and the environment.  

2iE’s ambition is to increase the regional and international influence of scientific and technological teaching and research in Africa by developing courses and research programmes that are oriented towards green growth. It focuses, for example, on innovation and entrepreneurship in relation to wastewater treatment, solar energy and biofuels, and eco-material and civil engineering.

Gordon Institute of Business Sciences

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) is the business school of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. It’s world-renowned: it has since 2000 been consistently ranked as one of the Financial Times’ top global business schools. 

A key feature of this school is that it addresses a threatening gap in African higher education - that between supply and demand. African students often graduate but are unable to find work because they’ve been trained in the wrong sector, or not according to the requirements of a specific job profile. For example, a survey released last year by the Inter-University Council for East Africa found that between 51% to 63% of the graduates were “half-baked”, “unfit for jobs” and “lacking job market skills”. 

GIBS however offers academic programmes which can be custom-designed to suit specific company needs. Each year, more than 60 leading global and South African organisations from the private, public and non-government sectors, partner with GIBS to design and deliver tailor-made interventions to develop their existing and potential leaders.


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