The Association of African Universities (AAU) is the apex organisation and forum for consultation, exchange of information and cooperation among institutions of higher education in Africa. It represents the voice of higher education in Africa for regional and international bodies and supports networking by institutions of higher education in teaching, research, information exchange and dissemination. One of the emerging issues at institutions of higher learning in Africa is eLearning and the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools to deliver educational resources. Boubakar Barry is the Coordinator, Research and Education Networking Unit at AAU and Edris Kisambira interviewed him about emerging issues in higher education in Africa.
eLA: As director of AAU, one of your core mandates is to handle and advise on emerging issues at universities in Africa. What is your take on eLearning as an emerging issue and a new way of learning?
Boubakar Barry: African universities face a very tough challenge, both in terms of access to higher education and quality of education. Since the 1990s, enrollment rates are increasing in African higher education institutions due to the very high demand but the adequate infrastructure has not been made available at the same growing rate of the demand.
eLearning constitutes a very good opportunity to address the increasing demand for education. Moreover, it provides tools that can improve equity regarding access, especially for disadvantaged people like physically challenged persons.
It is clear that African institutions of higher learning cannot take up the challenge of providing more access to quality higher education without developing a strategy for integrating eLearning as a key component for delivering courses.
In fact, efforts are presently being made by several African countries to improve access to higher education through blended learning that involves distance learning modules or remote lecturing using ICT.
eLA: What is the coordination of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) initiatives programme all about and what is it aimed at achieving?
Boubakar Barry: The AAU has undertaken a series of discussions and consultations with key players in the ICT development field. We identified the major issues of ICT and research- and education-networking in Africa and clarified the focal-point role of the AAU in relation to ICT and networking on the Continent.
The AAU positioned itself as a clearinghouse for information on relevant ICT initiatives, trends and opportunities; to facilitate networking, collective action and the sharing of good practice and expertise.
We undertake informed advocacy and lobbying on ICT issues together with and on behalf of Africa’s knowledge centres. It should be emphasised, however, that the AAU would need urgent support to build up the capacity required for undertaking the task.
Subsequently, and with funding from the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHE) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Research and Education Networking Unit was set up at AAU in 2006 and has since then been carrying out activities related to the issues identified in Tunis. Activities of the Unit are also being funded by the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in the framework of the AAU CADRE Project.
eLA: What are the economies of scale that come with cooperation in education at a higher level, given the challenges involved in managing institutions of higher learning in Africa?
Boubakar Barry: Given the competition situation at the global level, there is no way for African higher education instructions to compete successfully with their counterparts in other parts of the world.
There are many highly competent African specialists whose expertise in cutting-edge technologies is internationally recognised. The problem is that most of the time, there is no critical mass of specialists in particular disciplines in one country or institution. It is therefore crucial to create an environment that enables collaboration, in order to put research efforts together and make a difference at the global level. This is why the AAU gives extreme importance to the process of establishment of research and education networks in our continent.
eLA: What can you say are the most critical issues that are affecting higher education in Africa?
Boubakar Barry: Addressing the high demand for access to higher education is for me a very important issue in Africa.
Unfortunately, governments are not investing enough in infrastructure and human resources in order to address this issue properly. And although the private sector (private higher education institutions) have a very important role to play, our governments cannot just let the market decide who and who cannot access higher education. Higher education should be considered – as are primary and secondary education – as a public good.
eLA: What are the things that AAU is doing to help universities change through ICT?
Boubakar Barry: The AAU has initiated a number of activities aiming to sensitise higher education institutions’ leaders on the importance of ICT for better curriculum delivery, better learning conditions and better management.
The AAU is organising periodic workshops on leadership development for senior higher education institutions’ personnel, and ICT is one of the important issues that is addressed during these workshops.
The AAU is also organising periodic capacity-building workshops for campus network managers, in collaboration with AfNOG (the African Network Operators Group), AfriNIC (the African Region Internet Registry) and other partners.
eLA: Public universities in sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of those in South Africa, seem to have funding shortfalls, which result in strikes every year. What should be done to ensure the survival of these institutions?
Boubakar Barry: It is true that universities in sub-Saharan Africa are facing very severe crises, particularly since the 1990s. These crises have to do with the rush demand of the concerned universities and the fact that not enough infrastructure and staff have been provided to address these evolutions. The situation has become very worrying in the last years, where (at least in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa) universities can become inactive for at least two to three months a year due to students or academic staff strikes.
Education, including higher education, is a public good and it is crucial for our governments to make provision of adequate resources for quality teaching and learning. There is no way out from poverty and underdevelopment if the higher education sector is not adequately developed in our countries.
eLA: As institutions of higher learning bring on board ICTs in education, key challenges include infrastructure as well as equipment like PCs. Is AAU doing anything to enable members access to this needed equipment easily and cheaply?
Boubakar Barry: The AAU does not provide direct support to higher education institutions regarding access to equipment and infrastructure at affordable prices. However, a lot of activities are carried out towards decision and policymakers in order to sensitise them on the need to waive taxes on IT equipment and to have a regulatory environment that enables access to bandwidth at affordable prices.
eLA: Aside from eLearning, what can you say are the other emerging issues in higher education in Africa?
Boubakar Barry: In my opinion, curriculum review taking into account the real needs of the labour market, harmonisation of curricula, staff and student mobility as well as staff retention are very important issues that should be addressed by our institutions of higher learning.