Education at the heart of African growth
Quality education is required to realise Africa’s growth potential as envisioned in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While the continent’s expanding youthful population and abundant resources have seen the global gaze turning to Africa for economic growth, Swiss ambassador Helene Budliger Artieda noted at the opening of the 6th World Sustainability Forum in Cape Town that World Bank projections suggest the world’s poor would be increasingly concentrated in Africa, even if the average 1995 to 2014 growth rates were maintained.
Artieda said that official statistics estimate 70% of the 836 million people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day are living in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
However, quality education was the “fundamental vehicle” for changing this situation, and the SDGs acknowledged the imperative for focusing attention on all levels of education, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which focused only on universal access to primary education.
Education equipped people with the relevant skills to seek decent employment and engage in entrepreneurship; provided the knowledge to promote sustainable development; educated future educators to continue the cycle of knowledge transfer; and provided the foundation for breakthroughs in science and innovation that could find solutions to complex sustainability challenges across the globe.
University of the Western Cape vicechancellor Tyrone Pretorius said the world had shifted to a knowledge economy, which required the technical skills and expertise only education could provide.
“Universities are to the knowledge economy what the steam engine was to the industrial economy,” said Pretorius.
However, University of Cape Town deputy vice-chancellor in research and internationalisation Mamokgethi Phakeng warned that knowledge of itself was not the answer to achieving the SDGs or creating sustainable growth.
“Are these knowledges complicit to the social structures and politics that engulf us across the globe?” asked Phakeng, “or does our research challenge acquisitive structures that depend on social inequality?”
She said while the SDGs, adopted in 2015, were wide-ranging, it was “striking” how closely they aligned to critical problems in Africa.
“Inequality, climate change, food and water insecurity, unemployment, safe cities – this is a script that could have been written by us in Africa,” she said.
Yet, research was crucial to achieving the SDGs that address these problems, and African universities, historically set up to provide human resources for public institutions, needed to include research as a larger part of their programme.
As it stands, African universities produce only 1% of global research output, and most of that comes from specific South African universities.
South African universities needed to overcome the challenges the low level of investment in research and development – which averages less than 0.25% of gross domestic product in African countries – and the lack of research collaboration and knowledge exchange between academia and industry.
If African universities did not take the lead in research in Africa, the agenda of research on the effects of issues such as climate change in African countries would continue to be dominated by researchers from “the north”.
At the moment, only 30% of the research papers studying climate change in Africa had an African researcher as the lead author. This meant Africans were not formulating the
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African universities needed to engage in south-south rather than north-south collaboration, become partners rather than competitors, share resources and infrastructure and create centres of excellence to compete for funding situated in the north, as local funding was in short supply.
UN special adviser on SDGs and director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University Jeffrey Sachs said education was “top of the agenda in SDGs” and research needed to meet local needs in order for investment to be made wisely.
“The lesson from Asia is well-targeted investment,” said Sachs. This meant investment in good governance, infrastructure, human capital, intellectual capital, social capital and financial capital.
If Africa could substantially raise its investment rates across these six areas, it could double its growth rate from 5% to 10% per annum.
This was especially true if “every child is given a decent start in life” in terms of nutrition, safety and education to stimulate brain development. “Education is a key explanatory factor of China’s success,” said Sachs.
The university sector had a “crucial and unique role to play” in achieving SDGs and resultant growth, as the challenges lay beyond capacity, and often beyond the interests of a government limited to looking to a five-year election cycle.
As for the crisis surrounding #FeesMustFall protests at South African universities, he said he realised it was an “extremely difficult moment in universities right now, but sometimes a crisis is an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what we can and should do in the future’, and plan a new way forward”.
Phakeng said universities welcomed disruptions that “push us to rethink who we are, what we do as a collective and the implications that has for the future of our world”.
“We welcome challenges,” she said, “but we’d like some new challenges now, not the same as 2015 and 2016.”