By John D. Holm and Leapetsewe Malete
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African higher education faces a crisis. The quality of university teaching and research has declined drastically as institutions across the continent contend with budget cuts, growing enrollments, repeated strikes, a crumbling infrastructure, and a migration of the most talented professors to developed countries.
In response, universities from America and Europe, government aid agencies, and charitable foundations have started major efforts to help rebuild higher education in Africa. While those projects have dedicated substantial funds and human resources to the cause, they so far have produced mixed results. The problem is that representatives of universities from developed countries and other well-intentioned people come to Africa with basic assumptions that undermine their work.
Those assumptions about how to assist the region are not always explicit. They are manifested in subtle ways in the behavior and speech of higher-education officials who come to Africa. What’s more, the officials often fail to examine their own assumptions, some of which are obviously unrealistic. To be sure, not all Europeans and North Americans make such mistakes. But as the former and current directors of the Office of International Education and Partnerships at the University of Botswana, over the past four years we have seen such assumptions ruin potentially promising endeavors.
While many factors lead to the failure of partnerships, we have identified nine problems that hinder outside aid to Africa’s universities and several ways to improve the interaction between African academics and their peers:
1. Academics from developed countries often take the lead in research, while African colleagues are relegated to minor roles. A recent example occurred when an American scholar came to Botswana with a grant from a prestigious international organization to study aspects of condom use as part of an HIV/AIDS research project. The researcher approached the University of Botswana saying she needed a graduate student from her discipline to conduct the field research. She would pay the student well and allow the student to use the data for a thesis. From her viewpoint, the proposal sounded like a good deal.
But our university’s faculty members had two issues with her approach. First, they had not been involved in the development of the problem, the hypothesis, or the methodology. (The researcher had been in Botswana when she was developing the project but had made little attempt to contact the university.) Second, she was proposing to employ a graduate student whom the Botswanan academics would prefer to have working on their research. Ultimately the Botswana faculty members gave their American counterpart the cold shoulder, leaving her most puzzled that her “generous” offer had not been taken up.
2. Outside scholars think they know what curriculum is best for universities in the developing world. Consider a recent situation involving a graduate program in Italy. The program was an interdisciplinary master’s degree in community development to help Central European universities educate civil servants to work with local governments that are making the transition to a post-communist society. Several institutions offered the degree jointly. Italian academics proposed starting the same cooperative program, with virtually the same syllabus, in conjunction with four southern-African universities.
But the context of southern Africa is quite different from that of Central Europe. Moreover, the tuition required to cover the costs of circulating among universities was beyond anything southern African students, their parents, or their governments could afford. Finally, similar programs, although not as good, already operated within several of the countries at a much lower cost. Scholars from developed countries should not propose curriculum-development programs with African institutions without at least examining the existing curricula and the tuition charges. They should also understand the knowledge and skill levels of the students coming into the program, as well as the human resources required and the ability of African faculty members to be involved in the project.
3. Visiting academics think a top-down approach is the most effective way to get things done at universities in developing countries. The idea is that the vice chancellor, president, or other top administrator will round up the necessary academic staff members and resources to ensure the success of a project. In the short term, that approach will sometimes work, but over time it does not. New administrators come with new agendas and budget priorities, and previous partnerships have no value.
Top administrators often play into the problem, usually because they are good friends with a scholar organizing the project. The reality is that projects are sustained by personal and professional relationships developed among the key persons who are responsible for day-to-day operations. Top administrators should refer people who are proposing a particular endeavor to the appropriate faculty members at the institution and suggest that if concrete plans develop, the administration will try to allocate some start-up resources.
4. African universities, students, and faculty members often can’t afford significant project costs. One thing that surprises us in negotiating study-abroad exchanges is that universities from developed countries often refuse to pay room and board for students from Botswana. In some cases where such costs are heavily subsidized, like Japan and China, that sort of agreement is possible. For the most part, however, room and board are high-cost items in developed countries compared with Botswana. An exchange proposed by one European university was going to cost each Botswanan student about $5,700 per semester for room and board. By contrast, students coming to Botswana from the European university were to pay little more than $1,380. When we protested that the ratio was not fair, we were told that the university was just trying to treat Botswanan students equally compared with all other students attending the institution.
Other African universities face harder financial challenges. Because of Botswana’s diamond wealth, which helps support the country’s higher-education system, the University of Botswana is able to cover some of the costs of its students going abroad. Many of our sister universities in Africa simply cannot afford to cover any such costs. Unless a partner university is willing to be generous, student exchanges cannot become a reality.
Finding a fair monetary basis for student exchanges is not easy. The best situation for an African university is to exchange room, board, and tuition with universities in developed countries.
5. Projects with developing countries are often done with multiple partners. The reasoning, prevalent among foundations and multilateral donors, is that combining a number of African universities into a cooperative organization is efficient in the long run. Resources and staff can be pooled and thus create a more robust academic enterprise. For example, the World Bank for two decades has supported a program that sends economics professors from several universities to Nairobi, Kenya, for one semester a year to offer specialized graduate courses to students from partner institutions. More than a thousand students have studied in the program. Another notable example is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, started by American foundations. That effort brought universities together to buy new technologies to increase their Internet capabilities.
But those examples aside, more often than not the approach doesn’t work. One of the key problems is that financial support for such partnerships never lasts. Foundations, for example, usually cover the start-up costs of a multilateral program but don’t want to be long-term supporters. And African universities do not have the funds to sustain the administrative costs themselves.
Our experience is that projects developed between two institutions appear to have a much better chance of success. The costs are lower, and administrators and faculty members are more likely to be personally invested in the effort.
6. Researchers from developed countries often feel an obligation to their financial supporters. Often scholars from America or other nations who win grants to work in Africa understandably feel responsible to the institutions supporting them. While grant dollars and other awards should be well managed, such obligations should not trump the need to make African faculty members full partners in topic selection, formulation of project objectives, budget building, and other aspects of a research effort.
Some donors are attempting to reverse that situation by insisting that African scholars be primary investigators on projects. Several such projects at the University of Botswana have forced major research universities to adopt a more egalitarian posture. But that approach requires senior scholars on African-university staffs who can manage the research ventures—and, unfortunately, experienced academics are in short supply in Africa. A cadre of African scholars who can administer programs must be created to fix the situation.
7. Top-quality universities in Europe and America want to do projects only with institutions of comparable quality. We have been told on more than one occasion—usually by universities in Europe or Australia seeking to improve their images internationally—that they cannot work with our institution, because it does not have adequate status in global-university rankings. In effect, the product or learning experience that emerges from a partnership does not matter. It is strictly a means to raise status. We do not waste our time with such universities.
8. The risks to the health and safety of students and staff members in Africa are exaggerated. Thanks to the American and European news media’s focus on political violence and health problems in Africa, partnerships with universities on the continent are sometimes perceived to be high-risk activities. In Botswana the two risks that are particularly well known are HIV/AIDS and crime. But while HIV/AIDS is certainly a serious problem, the incidence is frequently overstated. Visitors should simply use the same precautions they would at home to avoid the disease.
Foreign visitors can also take simple, common-sense steps to avoid being victims of crime, which tends to be thefts of laptops, cameras, and cellphones; it rarely involves physical violence. There is no doubt that visitors, particularly from developed countries, are attractive targets to thieves. But chances of being robbed can be reduced if valuable items are kept out of public view when not in use; dorm-room doors are locked; windows on the first floor are closed at night; and computer locks are used for laptops.
9. Efforts to teach African university staff members new skills are often done in quick workshops. African academics and administrators probably welcome such workshops because they mean time away from work, free food, and a chance to socialize with friends. Foundations and other donors like workshops because they reach a large number of participants who usually provide positive survey evaluations. But although workshops of five or fewer days may be productive for learning computer programs or accounting, they are often not effective at teaching more in-depth subjects, like conflict management, or important qualities, like leadership. They can’t provide the sustained interaction that participants need to take on new responsibilities, develop professional skills, or become managers. To develop those talents requires reading, feedback from mentors and colleagues, and reflection.
Our objective is not to to focus on the negative but to start a broad discussion about the challenges to university partnerships in Africa and make them more effective. Such a dialogue has been largely missing or, at best, intermittent.
Faculty members from developed countries, especially in subjects crucial to Africa’s development, like engineering and the health sciences, should understand that their assistance must be delivered in a different social and cultural context in Africa.
African professors need to start a frank discussion with their counterparts about the conditions for cooperation. We have repeatedly heard our University of Botswana colleagues grumble that they receive no respect in partnerships. Yet they do not speak up when they have an opportunity.
The challenges can be overcome, but not over a one- or two-day visit. They require the development of a relationship that stems from friendship, trust, and mutual respect, a relationship that comes with shared experiences, disagreements, conversations, and solving problems together. All of that is demanding, but not impossible.
John D. Holm and Leapetsewe Malete are, respectively, the former and current directors of the Office of International Education and Partnerships at the University of Botswana.