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Center for International Higher Education

International Network for Higher Education in Africa

editorial series



March 2015

Dual Mission of Dlamini-Zuma and Sall: Lobbying for Higher Education on Parallel Agendas

[Pour la version en français, cliquez ici]

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra wrote the discussion paper on Investment in Higher Education in Africa and led the higher education expert team which developed the background papers in the lead up to the Summit. He is a professor of higher education at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education, Editor of the Chronicle of African Higher Education and the African Higher Education News. He may be reached at and

At the just-concluded African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, under the theme of ‘Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future,’ the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Senegalese President, Macky Sall, have pledged to undertake a role of critical importance: lobbying their constituencies for revitalizing higher education at the upcoming head of states meeting in June 2015. This commitment comes at a climax of a concerted drive—by a number of institutions, including the Association of Commonwealth Universities [1], the International Network for Higher Education in Africa [2, 3], and the International Association of Universities [4], among others—to position higher education strategically at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.

As the top African Union diplomat and the President are headed to the June meeting to engage their colleagues and situate the dialogue within the 2063 African Union Agenda [5], this editorial attempts to offer some critical “talking points” for the conversation. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the dialogue may also help shape the post-2015 development agenda, which, many worry, may not place higher education centrally—as demonstrated by the three institutions above.

The five main points below are the critical concepts:

1. Rate of Return: Africa Now the Global Leader!

The abandoned rate-of-return study on higher education has been instrumental in adversely shaping the African higher education sector for decades. It was at this 2015 Summit that the audience discovered from a World Bank representative—with jubilation—that the rate of return on higher education in Africa is not only high but at 21 percent [6], is now the highest in the world! For a few higher education experts at the Summit—who have been at the forefront of the conversation on the rate-of-return debacle [7,8,9], including this author—that official pronouncement was a particularly momentous occasion.

Indeed, investing in African higher education is not only important now but more so as it affords the continent a very high competitive edge to its already high and sustained economic growth. Thus, all concerned need to celebrate, articulate, and widely popularize this new and groundbreaking discovery on the role of African higher education. This major finding must be effectively communicated for a paradigm shift targeting political leaders, policy makers, development partners and actors, researchers, and other stakeholders.

2. Raising Higher Education Budgets: No Blanket Appeal

Probably no particular issue would be as prominent as funding in the conversation about revitalizing African higher education. Higher education in Africa is still predominantly public (only 25 percent of Africa’s students are currently enrolled in private institutions) and is heavily dependent on government funding—with persistent and massive shortfalls. This is the case even though quite a number of African countries already invest a sizeable portion of their budgets in the higher education sector and thus have limited flexibility to increase it significantly. According to Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia already devote about 18 percent of their national budget to education. Ethiopia is already investing more than a fifth of its national budget in education (about a quarter of it in higher education). Figures for Botswana and South Africa are roughly equivalent [10].

Therefore, appealing to governments for a wholesale massive increase of funding may not have considerable traction. But these countries, and all others, need to be persuaded to foster their fund-raising and revenue diversification capabilities institutionally, nationally, and internationally with comprehensive, strategic, and holistic policies and approaches.

3. Managing Egalitarianism: Enhancing Differentiation

Africa has seen phenomenal growth and expansion of its higher education sector in the last decade. As part of a study on eleven leading African universities due to be published this year in a Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact, and Trajectory (working title), an estimated 14 million students currently study in African higher learning institutions [11]. The magnitude of expansion is remarkable in both the “mother” and “sibling” institutions. Governments need to be commended for their direct and indirect intervention including favourable policies and funding, among others.

This remarkable massification, however, did not come without considerable challenges, including the reluctance to identify and support select institutions in the strategic interest of fostering national competitiveness. In some countries, this practice is so pervasive that it tends to disregard even the oldest and best-established post-independence institutions which already enjoy national prominence. Increasingly, but troublingly so, many new public institutions are being established in Africa in which crass politics are interlaced with narrow ethnic, religious, and other sectarian lines, among other problems. At times, they function without the most basic of facilities and resources.

Such practices and phenomena put immense hurdle in the path of “Africa’s knowledge project.” Thus, the task of lobbying must be pursued with considerable sensitivity and firm persuasion. At the end, an unadulterated egalitarian predisposition that dangerously ignores a country’s existing and potential competitive knowledge advantage, it should be stressed, comes with serious consequences. Therefore, nations should map out their institutional landscape identifying (few) research-intensive, (most) teaching-intensive, and (many) comprehensive institutions, as appropriate.

Furthermore, no immediate silver bullet is in sight today to tackle the challenges of un(der)employment, though a host of initiatives are being considered. It is conceivable that a differentiated system contributes to help alleviate the unemployment crisis in the region. This is because differentiating the post-secondary education system—which allows a variety of programmes, curricula, and skills—expands the scope of job opportunities.

4. Leadership and Autonomy: Overlooked Imperatives

In this era of enrolment expansion, numerous African countries still appoint institutional leaders of public higher learning institutions by head of states and government ministries. In quite a large number of cases, those appointments have not taken merit or leadership quality as a central criterion for appointment and often trigger issues of allegiance and loyalty.

This editorial has no intention of articulating the pros and cons of these increasingly critical values of institutional leadership at this unprecedented period of higher education transformation and change. Rather, its goal is to firmly stress that the qualification to lead higher education institutions in this era entails not only winning the confidence of academics, staff, and students—not an easy task—but also acquiring the trust and support of numerous other internal and external stakeholders who are increasingly non-governmental actors.

Political leaders must be urged to grant robust autonomy to higher education institutions, including the selection of their own institutional leaders in countries where this is not the norm so far; if that is not feasible, however, nations must strive to appoint institutional leaders who meet high standards of excellence. The involvement of other countries and institutions in this exercise, especially for those leading institutions nationally, is instrumental not only in advancing the direct interest of nations but also in the African Union’s mission of fostering an “Integrated Africa” whose objectives include facilitating academic mobility and close academic cooperation among nations.

5. Advancing Research: Enhancing Knowledge Production and Utilization

The importance of research for knowledge production is well established. However, where production of knowledge is very low, as in Africa, the capacity to utilize it is minimal as well. This is simply because developing the capacity for research for creating knowledge also enables its utilization. Therefore, the rationale for advancing research in higher learning institutions must not be construed only in terms of fostering knowledge production, but also in enhancing capacity to utilize it. 

Despite some differences between English- and French-speaking countries, the major citadel of knowledge production in Africa lies in the universities. Such undertakings mostly take place through (post)graduate education, particularly PhD training—but Africa’s ability to advance this agenda faces serious hurdles [12,13]. Furthermore, simply acquiring and generating knowledge does not amount to its dissemination and diffusion—an important issue for another conversation.

The complex reality of relevance (of research and curriculum) versus development is not very well understood. But it is important to observe that the fast-changing knowledge era has made forecasting a country’s needs increasingly difficult. To cite an example: Countries which have recently discovered oil and gas are known to be scrambling to build their national skills capacity in those areas.

Science and technology has recently received major emphasis—and rightly so—for Africa’s development. We have recently seen many countries shifting quickly towards science and technology with palpable anxiety for those in the other disciplines. Ethiopia is a special example that has undertaken an aggressive and swift turnaround with now over 70 percent of its enrolments in science, technology, and engineering fields [14].

It is critical to also stress the vital importance of the social sciences, arts and humanities in harnessing the advancement of science and technology in the service of society. Moreover, multidisciplinary approaches are paramount prerequisites in tackling Africa’s numerous and complex development challenges which are unencumbered by boundaries of academic disciplines.


African higher education is currently driving energetically forward, under the high impetus of growth and expansion with 14 million students in the system. As expansion continues unabated, a more strategic and determined consolidation and differentiation of the system is imperative.

The rate of return on higher education in Africa now stands as the highest in the world—at 21 percent. If earlier seminal documents, by the World Bank and UNESCO [15, 16] among others, liberated African higher education from the shackles of flawed policy predicaments, this one may have the potential to crown it. It is thus imperative that the coronation of higher education—as providing the highest dividend—must be applauded, celebrated, and widely disseminated.

This breakthrough finding could not have come at a more opportune time when a number of concerned higher education entities are striving to position higher education more centrally in their post-2015 development agendas, which many fear may marginalize it. In light of this outstanding discovery, there is no reason to read disparities into the post-2015 development agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 as regards the critical role and contributions of higher education to national development. Finally, the unequivocal enunciation of the sector as critical to development—further buttressed by the new rate of return figures—must be strategically deployed at the upcoming meeting of the heads of states, and other relevant fora.

It is also crucial to recall that expanding and revitalizing higher education in Africa in the past required a sustained political will. We are guardedly optimistic that the dual mission of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma and President Sall in lobbying their political constituencies in revitalizing higher education--not just in Agenda 2063 but also post-2015--has gotten somewhat easier—and a lot smoother.


[1] Association of Commonwealth Universities. The world beyond 2015: Is higher education ready?

[2] Teferra, Damtew. (2014, May 19). Treacherous ambivalence. Inside Higher Education—World View.

[3] Teferra, Damtew. (2014, July 04). Critical to include HE in post-2015 development agenda. University World News, Issue No: 327.

[4] International Association of Universities. (2014). The role of higher education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. IAU Horizons, 20(3).


[6] This was communicated at the Summit by a World Bank representative.

[7] Samoff, Joel, and Carroll, Bidemi. (2002). The promise of partnership and the continuities of dependence: External support to higher education in Africa. Report presented at the 45th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington, DC.

[8] Bloom, E. David, Canning, David, Chan, Kevin, and Luca, D. Lee. (2014). Higher education and economic growth in Africa. International Journal of African Higher Education, 1(1): 23-57.

[9] Teferra, Damtew. (2009). Higher education in Africa: The dynamics of international partnerships and interventions. In Roberta M. Bassett & Alma M. Maldonado (Eds.), International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? New York: Taylor and Francis. 155-173.

[10] Teferra, Damtew. (2013). (Ed.) Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. (Multiple chapters consulted.)

[11] Teferra, Damtew. (in press). (Ed.). Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact and Trajectory [Working title]. Durban and Boston: International Network for Higher Education in Africa.

[12] Hayward, F. (2010). Graduate education in sub-Saharan Africa. In Damtew Teferra and Greijn Heinz (Eds.) Higher education and globalization: Challenges, threats and opportunities for Africa. Maastricht/Boston: Mundo, Maastricht University and INHEA, Boston College. 31-57.

[13] Teferra, Damtew. (2015). Manufacturing—and exporting—excellence and “mediocrity”: Doctoral education in South Africa. South African Journal of Higher Education 29(5). 

[14] Ayalew, Elizabeth (in press). Once a Flagship, always a flagship? The role of AAU in Ethiopian higher education development. In Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact and Trajectory. (Ed.) Durban and Boston: International Network for Higher Education in Africa.

[15] World Bank and Unesco. (2000). Higher education in developing countries: Peril and promise. Washington, D.C./Paris: World Bank/Unesco.

[16] World Bank. (2002). Constructing knowledge societies: New challenges for tertiary education. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.