AN uncomfortable bond ties the higher education sector to African nations’ developmental agenda. This is most ably demonstrated by the interminable struggle to secure increased public funding for institutions.
Governments are not blind to the benefits that a skilled population can contribute to their economies, but often find themselves hamstrung by needing to prioritise a range of other infrastructure and resource investments to cope with immediate challenges.
This dilution of resources has a direct impact on the ability of institutions to deliver the quality and quantity of graduates needed to enter the workforce. Which also raises the question: do these economies have posts available for them to fill?
These vexing questions were addressed by a panel of experts at the Africa Universities Summit, being hosted at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. They shared examples of working models and proposed some solutions, although no-one was able to produce the silver bullet that would magically resolve this debate.
Direct state intervention
Yue Chee Yoon of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, provided a compelling argument for direct state intervention and support that could have tangible economic benefits.
He explained that the government of Singapore had recognised after independence 50 years ago, that education had an important role to play in building social cohesion and nation building. Prior to independence, participation in higher education was below 10% and is currently close to 40%, he said.
“The second key pillar was the intimate link between education and economic development. Singapore has no natural resources, so we always say our greatest natural resource walks around on two legs.”
This focus on higher education has seen the country’s economy shifting through distinct phases from being based on manual labour through to skills, then technology and today it is recognised as a strong knowledge-based economy.
The government’s commitment to prioritising higher education for the good of the economy, he added was evident in the education ministerial committee being headed by the minister of trade and industry.
This singular focus on extracting economic value from the higher education sector is a lesson that African government’s certainly could emulate. The Singapore example, however, does feel a little exceptional.
The country has a population of only around six million, its transformation into an advanced economy has not taken place overnight, and its tertiary education sector has the luxury of considerable financial resources at its disposal. Yue said that Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore alone have around $3 billion in endowments available to them, which is in addition to the $1 billion annual budget for their educational and research activities.
The fact remains though that none of this would have been possible without a concerted government commitment to investing in higher education.
Fellow panellist, Devang Vussonji of Dalberg Global Development Advisors, proposed that while public funding certainly can have a transformative impact universities needed to start exploring alternative funding mechanisms.
“You need to think about financing coming from the biggest financial beneficiaries - so who is benefiting from education the most, and how do you tap into those sources? The answer to that tends to be either employers or employees,” he said.
By adapting the traditional development guarantee mechanism to the educational system, he explained, universities could enter into contracts with employers whereby they promised to pay a certain fee if they employed graduates from that institution.
This concept was already being employed successfully in Nigeria in the vocational skills area, where the cost of the education is borne by the institutions but on gaining employment the graduate repays 80% of the fees with the balance covered by the employer. Should the graduate not find employment their obligations to the institution are wavered.
In answering the question of how to establish a balance between the developmental agenda and educational objectives, Barry Green of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), suggested a more robust engagement was needed with political leaders.
“We need to be upfront with them, really engage and show what we can do and how we can make that change. And this should not depend on financing, it should depend on building a partnership. And we need to present solutions that are credible and measurable and I think if we can do that cautiously and deliver we can make headway.
“We have to get patrons involved - including the politicians - in order to paint a new picture of what we can do, then achieve that.”
Vussonji added that the best way to achieve the political buy-in would be to deliver results on a small scale and demonstrate that this could be scaled up. He suggested the cost of failure for innovation was very high and it was easier to win support for a pilot programme that could prove rollout on a bigger scale.
The final word on the debate - and a cautionary one at that - fell to Yue, who recounted a popular Singaporean maxim: hungry people are angry people. “So we do what we can to ensure competitiveness and make sure of the employability of everyone.”