Third World universities

Finally, the West is waking up to the importance of investing in Third World universities that for decades have been starved of cash. Lucy Hodges reports on Britain's efforts to improve higher education across the continent
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After independence, Africa had several universities that were jewels in the crowns of the countries they served, and arguably in the continent as a whole.

They included Makerere in Uganda, Accra in Ghana, Ibadan in Nigeria and the University of Dakar in Senegal. Today, however, they are shadows of their former selves. Their buildings have deteriorated, staffing has declined, libraries are poor and they suffer from inadequate scientific equipment - the result of political and economic turmoil combined with chronic underfunding and misallocation.

But things are not all bad. Makerere, which educates most Ugandan undergraduates, has managed to find a way of charging students and replenishing its coffers, thereby enabling it to pay its academics better. And Tony Blair's Commission for Africa report, published earlier this year, has given a real boost to the important role that higher education plays in development.

For the past 15 years, higher education has been neglected in the Third World both by development agencies such as the World Bank, and by Western governments - and this has encouraged African governments' relative neglect of higher education. The thinking has been that aid should be concentrated on primary education, on the grounds that literacy is crucial to development. Universities were seen as less important because they educate the offspring of the elite. Between 1985 and 1989, 17 per cent of the World Bank's education spending went on higher education. But that dropped to a mere 7 per cent between 1995 and 1999. "Higher education in Africa has suffered from such reductions in spending," says a new paper, Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa, by three Harvard academics. "Many African countries struggle to maintain even low enrolment levels, and the academic research output in the region is among the world's lowest."

The truth is that higher education brings not just private benefits to individuals in the form of higher income and better prospects, but public benefits to the whole economy. Universities can enable Third World countries to catch up technologically. That is why the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell has just announced UK Government support for African universities. He is giving £200,000 to set up an Africa unit at the Association of Commonwealth Universities in London to promote links between universities in the UK and their counterparts in Africa.

Among areas expected to be covered in these partnerships will be teaching and research, professional development, the training of women for senior management positions, and programmes in science and technology. "Africa's universities are at the heart of Africa's future," says Rammell. "They are key to Africa's economic growth. As the Commission for Africa recommended, we need to help support their development and particularly to strengthen centres of research, science and technology. This isn't just about altruism. It's about self-interest. If we don't get this right, it will begin to affect our security around the world."

The Department for Education and Skills will also be putting £50,000 into helping to start up a business education project in Ghana along the lines of the successful Tabeisa project in Cape Town. This has provided vocational and business training for young people to set up their own businesses, selling things like crafts and biscuits. Jane Conlon, chief executive of Tabeisa, is on the staff of Coventry University, which together with Greenwich University and four South African technology institutes is supporting Tabeisa.

"We have student and staff exchanges and a lot of our students working on the small business projects," Conlon said. "It is all geared to the theme of helping disadvantaged communities."

These new initiatives are small and the amount of money involved is minuscule, but they represent a real change in Government policy. Individual universities have developed their own links with that continent - but what is new is concerted action by ministers.

Leicester University, which has a partnership with the University of Gondar in northern Ethiopia, welcomes the shift. "These links are useful because they help to internationalise the university and to think through what globalisation means," says Professor Bob Burgess, Leicester's vice chancellor, who is acting as mentor to Gondar University's president. "Gondar is a new university that is having to build and expand very rapidly. How do you go about doing that? How do you upgrade the teaching staff?"

Dating back more than eight years, the partnership has been nurtured by Leicester's Mike Silverman, professor of child health at the medical school. Both sides have benefited: Leicester's staff have derived immense satisfaction from doing something practical to help people less well off than themselves and have learnt about tropical diseases and medicine in the Third World; and the Ethiopians have gained professional support, teaching materials and advice. There are plans to introduce a PhD programme, which would mean postgraduates taking a Leicester degree but carrying out their research in Gondar.

Silverman said he would like the British Council to establish a database of higher education partnerships around the world and thinks that the new university links scheme funded by the Department for International Development should be recast to support partnerships between institutions rather than simply supporting projects. The British Council says that it hopes to meet both of these demands.

In addition to these initiatives a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to implement the programme Renewing the African University, which has nine objectives and was endorsed by the Africa Commission.

This plan was written by Professor Akilagpa Sawyerr, secretary general of the Association of African Universities; Professor Njabulo Ndebele, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town; and John Rowett, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. It calls for $5bn (£2.9bn) to be spent over the next 10 years in breathing new life into African universities, and an extra $3bn on centres of excellence in science and technology.

This money would come from the leading industrial countries and the World Bank, a proposal which was endorsed in principle by the Gleneagles G8 meeting in June. No money has been forthcoming yet but Rowett says: "We can see an international coalition coming together. People get impatient that we're not making more progress. But when you think of the neglect of higher education over the decades, we have come a long way and the intellectual argument has been accepted." What is needed now is a plan that satisfies African universities and the donors. Rammell says this will be produced by NEPAD (The New Partnership for Africa's Development) next year, and is expected to call for strategies to be adopted on a region-by-region basis. "The UK should be applauded for helping to make all this happen," says Professor Bob Boucher, vice chancellor of Sheffield University and chairman of the international strategy group at Universities UK.

But not all the experts are so sanguine. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society, is worried that the DfES is channelling money for university links through the Association for Commonwealth Universities. "There is in existence a network for supporting universities on a Pan-African basis through the Royal Africa Society," he says.

Rammell replies that the links will spread eventually throughout Africa.