28 May, 2018

Africans at the heart of reforming education and skills training on the continent

By Olaf Hahn, Co-founder, Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA)

Global Solutions Initiative Photo: Global Solutions Initiative

The Global Solutions Summit’s recommendation for tertiary education in Africa

I am delighted to be at the Global Solutions Summit in Berlin for Education Sub Saharan Africa - ESSA this week, learning a lot and meeting more kindred spirits to help us with ESSA’s drive to ‘join up, inform, inspire and increase impact’ for everyone investing in education in sub-Saharan Africa.

The summit brings together leading think tanks from around the world, global policy-makers, business leaders and NGOs with the aim of finding solutions for global challenges. You can tell how seriously it is being taken by my own country with Angela Merkel providing the key note.

Amongst the six recommendations by the Summit’s Task force on Cooperation with Africa it was encouraging to see one on “Education”. Moreover, that it has a concrete focus to:

“Reform Africa’s education and skills training to better equip Africans to partake in the digital economy. Reforms should focus on tertiary education. Partnerships with G20 countries and African universities on research and publication (in both African and international journals) should be enhanced. Moreover, G20 countries should support R&D investments by African governments (e.g. through matching grants).”

With Africa’s nations, as well as the entire world, racing into a digital future that not everyone understands – who knows what the real consequences for local labor-markets are and what the “future of work” will really be like. This is especially the case in a continent where today, labor-markets are very much informal, employment is often vulnerable, the agriculture sector makes up around half of the working population and advances in artificial intelligence and robots may be the real job winners from economic development.

What is more certain is the pivotal role education is going to play in both shaping and realising Africa’s social and economic potential. Providing the right education for the continent is also becoming a significant commercial opportunity. Africans are driving change on both of these and African creativity, I am sure, will provide "leap-froggers" that the rest of the world can benefit from.

As the Global Solutions leadership has spotted, there are major implications in all of this for tertiary education which has already seen sustained growth in enrollments for decades to a level of around 5%. Yet with an expected growth of a billion more young people within a generation, high variability in this ratio, rising expectations and economic development, the pace of growth may be pedestrian. Then there are the issues of access and quality to deal with.

As many African Presidents have noted, high levels of graduate unemployment are a major frustration. The capacity and capability of African tertiary education to absorb this frustration and to offer places with quality learning experiences as well as providing research capability for Africa to take its rightful share of global innovation and value chains are of major concerns. At the same time employers are complaining that they can’t find the right talent.

Problems aside, this event (and ESSA) is focused on solutions, and the Global Solutions Summit’s recommendation is right: Tertiary education in Africa, as well as in the rest of the world, needs to meet the challenges of digital disruption and equip societies with not just the skills to cope with it but to be at the vanguard of driving innovation and using technology to bring positive change to societies. The “how” is simple to say but so much harder to do and includes the following:

  • Existing institutions need to increase both capacity and quality across the spectrum from good solid local universities to world class ones as well as meeting the consequent huge demand for affordable student accommodation.

  • New institutions will need to be built not just to satisfy volume but also provide the “Leap-froggers”.

  • The need of adequately trained faculty and relevant and motivating curricula which take advantage of technology.

  • Meeting what is likely to be a major increase in scholarships funding and effectiveness.

  • The interaction of tertiary education institutions with business must be intensified, be it to create internships to support employability, or to support the commercialization of innovations coming out of academic research centres.

  • Academic mobility needs to be increased, also towards Africa.

  • The overall inclusion of African tertiary education into the global ecosystem needs to be driven forward.

Each of these issues is complex and highly challenging, collectively they are massive. And we should not forget: Tertiary education depends largely on the quality of secondary and primary education. The useful recommendation to focus on tertiary education implies the need for a general focus on the entire education chain. A Herculean task.

All these issues need leadership and management, strategy and resources, and importantly speed. African nations have of course understood this, and the impressive share of GDP most of them have continuously invested in education over the last years (much more than most of the Northern countries), shows the right priorities. Now, what works best in this highly complex and utterly challenging situation in order to attract further investment?

What Stephen Denning stated more than 15 years ago seems still true: “Most of the high value knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work is in the South, even though much of the political power in the development organisations is in the North”[1]. A key issue is how the “international aid architecture” in education will best and jointly interact with African nations and their priorities, given those challenges. The Global Partnership for Education – GPE established in 2002, is one mechanism to allow systematic cooperation to strengthen education systems in developing countries in the Global South.

As tertiary education is not a focus area of the GPE, it is time to consider the design of a Global Compact for Tertiary education. But who will have the credibility and power to launch such an endeavor, and, more importantly, to drive it into success? 

There have been impressive examples for long-term collaboration in the space in the past. The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa driven by US foundations, was one of them, and it is worth revisiting it in this context.

Skills and jobs

Currently we assist to what seems a shift in the global education discourse and practice, putting “skills” for employability at the centre. This equation of course makes sense, but we should not forget that the creation of jobs, of hundreds of millions of jobs, and at best of dignifying jobs, are a prerequisite for the use of useful skills.

What are these “skills” mentioned in the recommendation, fitting for the needs of a digital economy, and how should tertiary education in Africa be set up to embrace these in a meaningful way?

Joseph E. Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston, in a remarkable recent publication has suggested a new discipline which he calls “humanics” – in order to nurture what he thinks are the decisive traits to face digital economy: creativity and flexibility. Aoun suggests to add three more literacies to reading, writing and mathematics: data literacy, technological literacy and human literacy. Furthermore, tertiary education, according to Aoun, needs to allow students to develop a set of cognitive capacities, indispensable in the digital age: systems thinking, entrepreneurship, cultural agility and critical thinking.

This sets a framework for the kind of education and skills which the recommendation of the Global Solutions Summit talks about. It is the adaptation of the current tertiary education system as well as of all education, with regards to these skills, which lies ahead of us.

The encouragement, by the Global Solution Summit, for the G20 to partner with African universities on research and publication and to support R&D investments by African governments, indicates another helpful direction. The Next Einstein Forum (NEF), launched in 2013 as an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in partnership with Robert Bosch Stiftung, is an excellent example of how such partnerships can be put into practice. The NEF is a “platform to connect science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world, with the goal to leverage science for human development globally.” The power of initiatives like the NEF to contribute to the internationalization of African research and tertiary education will be decisive.

A new actor in the space – Education Sub Saharan Africa - ESSA

Created in 2016, with the support of globally relevant philanthropies, ESSA has started to build partnerships and develop programmatic action in the core of Africa’s tertiary education, in Anglophone as well as in Francophone Africa. In this early phase of ESSA’s work, the focus is on:


  • Collecting robust evidence of the current state of faculty in African tertiary education, allowing reasonable forecast of future needs and the creation of planning tools for tertiary institution.

  • Developing an academic digital jobs board to support academic mobility.


  • Creating the first global and independent resource for information, data, analyses and thought leadership to promote maximally effective scholarship programmes for African students.

  • Providing a platform for engaging key stakeholders worldwide – donors, providers, businesses, universities, governments, bilateral organizations and young people themselves. The objective will be to share new knowledge, evidence, resources, innovation and expertise and to encourage collaboration – with the aim of improving outcomes for young people and to impact the social and economic future of Africa.

The main objective of ESSA, underpinned by this focus on issues of game-changing opportunity, is to “join up, inform, inspire and increase impact for everyone investing in education in sub-Saharan Africa”. There is an opportunity here to create partnerships and credibility needed to make a global compact on tertiary education in Africa happen, with Africans at the heart of it.


[1] Stephen Denning, “Knowledge Sharing in the North and South”, in: Gmelin, King, Mc Grath, “Development Knowledge, National Research and International Cooperation”, Edinburgh, Bonn, Geneva 2001


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