“Investing in the Future of Africa Through Its Universities”

 On September 25, 2005 Weekly Trust Magazine, a national newspaper run out of Abuja, Nigeria published the article below. Written by Jonathan Fanton, it describes recent advances in the higher education system in Africa, with a particular focus on the MacArthur Foundation’s work in Nigeria. 

Investing in the Future of Africa through its Universities

By Jonathan F. Fanton

September 25, 2005

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the presidents of Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique, and representatives of the continent’s most distinguished universities gathered with six of America’s largest private foundations to celebrate remarkable progress being made in African higher education.

Five years ago, the MacArthur, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York joined together to act on their conviction that higher education is essential to economic development and the growth of democracy in Africa.  Seeing momentum for change, we formed the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.  In the last five years, our foundations have provided over $150 million to more than 40 universities and higher education organizations in six African nations, including Nigeria.  Last week, joined by the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations, we recommitted ourselves to this important work. Over the next five years, our six foundations will invest an additional $200 million in Africa’s most promising universities.

As the Secretary General said, “The time is certainly right to re-launch this partnership.  The international community is giving unprecedented attention to Africa’s efforts to realize its potential.  …No single group or institution can meet these urgent needs on its own.  All of us — the Partnership, UNESCO and other UN agencies, and university networks and associations – must work together to support governments and higher education institutions in Africa.”

For the MacArthur Foundation, the decision to focus our investments in Nigeria was an easy one. MacArthur has funded creative individuals and organizations here since 1989, and we have had an office in the country since 1994. We make grants to Nigerian groups working in population and reproductive health, human rights, police reform, and the justice system, as well as higher education. We chose to work with four Nigerian universities showing strong leadership, reform-minded faculties, and a strategic vision for improvement (the Carnegie Corporation is also working with two of them). Our hope is that their progress will encourage other foundations and corporations – as well as government – to invest in the entire system of higher education in Nigeria.

Although many needs remain, the results so far are encouraging:

  • The University of Ibadan is greatly expanding its links with universities in the United States, Europe, and other countries in Africa.  More than 60 staff have completed internships abroad, and thirty international research collaborations are being planned. A multidisciplinary biological research laboratory is being established and equipped with electron and laser microscopes, as well as equipment for molecular biotechnology research.
  • The University of Port Harcourt has forged relationships with private industry to improve its campus. Last year, I toured a new center for information technology funded by Shell Petroleum with hundreds of workstations for teaching and research. And Elf Petroleum Ltd has helped finance a new Institute for Petroleum Studies, which is training a new generation of Nigerians for the country’s oil industry.
  • Bayero University has increased the number of faculty with PhDs, and doubled the number of programs with academic accreditation from the National Universities Commission.  A new Department of Agriculture has state-of-the-art offices, laboratories, classrooms, and equipment; 109 students are currently enrolled.
  • Ahmadu Bello University, known for its science education and research, has used MacArthur funds to equip laboratories in several departments, including Agricultural, Mechanical, Chemical and Civil Engineering, Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Microbiology, and Drug Development.  Other investments have been made to institute a university-wide strategic planning process.

Each of the four universities has made significant investments in information technology, vastly expanding the numbers of computers on campus and the electronic holdings in their libraries.

Indeed, universities in every country where the partnership is active have made such technology a priority.  For example, the Bandwidth Initiative is a joint effort by 11 universities in six nations to expand the availability of Internet bandwidth sevenfold.  93,000 kilobits per second of bandwidth will be purchased from the satellite service provider Intelsat –increasing capacity by almost 700 percent.  By bundling the demand of several universities, the schools will pay less than one-third of previous costs.  Even more important, students and faculty will be able to access information at speeds approaching those of peers on other continents.

These are only a few examples of the progress being made by universities in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda – countries where the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa is active. The gains are heartening, but they are only a start.  We know that to relax, even for a moment, is to slide backward. We believe that the new generation of university leaders and faculty members will accelerate the pace of reform.  And we are confident that new sources of funding from the public and private sectors will continue to grow.

There are many building blocks that comprise a nation—a strong constitution, a well-run legal system, a strong party system, transportation, the right kinds of foreign investment, and more.  All of these depend on leadership educated and trained at high quality universities.

For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity.  For communities, it is the source of common values that can hold a diverse people together.  For nations, education is the source of economic growth.  For citizens who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy, guided by respect for individual dignity and rule of law.

The Partnership’s support for higher education is a pragmatic investment in Africa’s future, helping build African institutions to produce African solutions for Africa’s most profound challenges: poverty, economic development, disease, political stability, and the rule of law.  Africa’s universities—in Nigeria and elsewhere—are cultivating the continent’s most important natural resource: its people.

Jonathan F. Fanton is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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