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Insights from the Fifth Ministerial Round Table: Towards the sustainable financing of education in Africa

Ministers of Education and ICT from across Africa have called for a rethinking of the financing strategies adopted by their higher education institutions if the United Nations Millennium Developmental Goals are to be attained by 2015. These are the findings of eLearning Africa’s Fifth Ministerial Round Table on Education and Sustainable Financing in Africa.

The Fifth Ministerial Round Table (MRT) on Education and Sustainable Financing in Africa was hosted by the Government of Benin and ICWE GmbH in association with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) at the recently-concluded eLearning Africa 2012. Present at the MRT were Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Education and ICT from Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia, Niger and Uganda, as well as representatives of Ministers of Education from Burkina Faso and Tanzania and representatives of Cote D’Ivoire’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.

It was noted that over the past four decades, more people in Sub-Saharan Africa have had access to education, with the number of pupils enrolling in primary school having increased more than fivefold, from 23 million in 1970 to 129 million in 2008. The growth is a reflection not merely of the increase in population size, but of the efforts by governments to provide Education for All. The sharpest increase has been in the enrolment figures for higher education. Forty years ago, tertiary enrolment stood at two hundred thousand; in 2008, 4.5 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled at tertiary institutions.

Despite this growth, the average public expenditure on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa has not only fallen but lags behind the rest of the world because donor aid for education in Africa has been in decline in recent years. At the same time, proportionally more public expenditure has been allocated to basic education relative to higher education.  The Ministers focused their discussion on new ways to finance education in the face of dwindling resources and rising demand. In this respect, reference was made to the importance of shifting away from donor dependency as a crucial determinant of self-reliance and financial sustainability.  The Ministers highlighted that on average, public education institutions are now generating about 30% of their own income.

Uganda is just one of the countries which are implementing dual-track tuition policies whereby a certain number of free (or very low-cost) university places are awarded based on criteria such as academic excellence, income level or positive discrimination, whilst other places are available on a tuition fee–paying basis. Similarly, in some Francophone countries, such as Benin, public universities have chosen to charge fees for professional programmes and programmes of excellence.  The Ministers also noted the increase in the number of private higher education institutions.

The MRT paid considerable attention to the value that information communication technologies (ICT) can add to expand affordable access to quality education in basic and higher education. That 51 African countries have adopted some form of ICT in Education policy certainly provides an enabling environment for investment in quality education delivery through ICT. Here, the Ministers noted, in particular, the potential that mobile technologies hold to support efficient education delivery and management.

The MRT made a number of recommendations which include recognising the limitations of privatisation as a solution, but at the same time building partnerships with the national and international private sector, particularly in the banking industry. The MRT also recommended: that the resources of the African diaspora be harnessed to invest in education on the Continent; that the import of ICT products in education should not be taxed and that opportunities provided by modern technologies such as massive open online courses should be strengthened.

In closing the Ministerial Round Table, those present pledged to report positive developments at the next MRT which will be held at eLearning Africa 2013 in Windhoek, Namibia.

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