In 2000, the leaders of Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller, Ford and John D and Catherine T MacArthur foundations created the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and the Kresge Foundation later joined the partnership.
The leaders of these American foundations saw the opportunity to support systemic change in higher education in nine African countries, namely: Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.
This is perhaps the largest partnership in higher education in Africa, and it came at a time when higher education was emerging from deep neglect, especially by the World Bank and bilateral donors in favour of primary education. The seven partner foundations invested $440 million (Sh45 billion) over a period of 10 years.
There is very little evidence on the exact motivations for the partnership. But some accounts suggest that the appointment of Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University, as the president of the Carnegie Corporation was critical to galvanising support among the seven foundations.
Moreover, there was unequivocal belief among the foundation partners that Africa would not progress without a strong higher education system. It is also interesting to note that all the presidents of the partner foundations knew each other and worked together well.
The seven partner foundations pointed to success in two key areas: Increased spotlight on the importance of higher education, which would spur additional investment by donors such as the World Bank, and strengthened core institutional capacity in governance systems and financial management, hence, enhancing the capacity of universities to attract funding beyond relying on government support.
Nearly a decade after the partnership ended, higher education in nearly all the countries that were part of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa is in crisis. For example, major public universities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria have run into unyielding headwinds of funding deficits. They are buffeted by vicious waves of governance incapacity.
Evidently, the change that the foundation partners heralded was neither systemic nor sustainable. While the degradation of higher education in Africa was triggered by the World Bank, it was exacerbated by insecure despots at the helm in many African countries who perceived universities as fountains of opposition.
Africa’s youth bulge and the concomitant surge in enrolment in primary schools has led to dramatic increase in the number of young people completing secondary school. Inevitably, the demand for university education will continue to increase.
The World Bank has recognised that its policy of marginalising higher education was misguided. However, while the World Bank has shown interest in funding higher education, there is little evidence base on what works, ranging from institutional reforms to improvements in teaching, learning and research.
Higher education is central to creating a knowledge economy and it is critical for Africa’s social, political and economic development. Equitable and durable growth on the African continent will not be possible unless it is driven by Africa’s own human capital.
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University