University Education Should be a Ladder out of Poverty, World Bank Vice President Says

November 14, 2011

ACCRA, November 14, 2011—The World Bank called Monday on African governments to expand access to and to ensure that both the quality and relevance of tertiary education serves as a ladder for Africans to climb out of poverty.

“Universities need to pay more attention to quality and relevance of higher education to economic growth and competitiveness,” World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region Obiageli Ezekwesili told a two-day conference which opened Monday at the University of Ghana, Legon.

She described Ghana as “the perfect example of how the expansion of access to higher education is interlinked with the solid economic growth and the sharp declines in poverty”.

With about 30 percent of its budget spent on education, Ghana has grown the number of its public and private universities to over 120. Between 2004 and 2011, World Bank funding in support of innovation in teaching and learning in Ghana has been a total $35 million, about $6.5 million of which has benefited the University of Ghana, Legon. University enrollment in the country has increased 13-fold, from 14,500 students to over 150,000 by 2010.

Regrettably, across Africa, only about six percent of the potential tertiary age group is enrolled in a tertiary institution, compared to a world average of 25.5 percent. Nine of the 10 countries with the lowest tertiary enrollment in the world are in Africa.

Participants at the conference, convened to discuss ways to transform Legon into a world class university, stressed the need for university training to boost job creation and income-generating opportunities, especially for girls, women, and talented but poor students. About seven-to-ten million African youngsters join the ranks of job seekers every year.

Elite universities play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and to apply their learning to industries, making a broader range of products that win customers worldwide.

A recent World Bank study concluded that a knowledge-intensive approach to development is likely the only path for sustained development in Africa in an interwoven and interdependent global economy.

To bring about the game-changing transformations needed in Africa’s tertiary system, the World Bank Vice President told the conference, the approach must be “business unusual”. Students, she stressed, must work hard and strive to excel at all times if African universities are to attain world class status; faculty members must continue to make enormous sacrifices to foster education; and universities must have more dynamic and visionary leadership at the helm.

“The next inventions… the next iPad and the next on-line sensation like Facebook or Twitter are at your reach,” Ms. Ezekwesili told students, sharing advice she also gives to her three college-age sons.

According to Ezekwesili, Ghana’s founding president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, probably assumed that Africans would prioritize achieving the education kingdom as a pre-requisite to seeking the political kingdom and hoping that the economic kingdom would be added onto them.

The conference also stressed the importance of private sector participation in funding universities, warning that African governments will never have enough money to fund tertiary education alone.

The private sector has a very high stake in ensuring that students graduating from universities are, indeed, skilled workers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and not just full of “big book” but unable to translate their knowledge into contributions at the workplace or in society.

“We need to leverage our collective strengths across national boundaries and build linkages with existing pools of world class knowledge,” Ezekwesili said, calling for a more dynamic and visionary leadership of African universities and regional collaboration among African higher education institutions keen to achieve excellence, particularly in science, technology and innovation.

The vice president urged African governments to “redefine and limit their role in creating an enabling environment for private sector participation (policy, strategy, tax incentives, labor laws, access to student loans, etc.); and in setting adequate standards, regulations, and accountability mechanisms”.

World class universities will emerge in Africa only if governments accept that these institutions have to be run by education specialists, not political appointees; and only if they are treated as laboratories where students and faculty can experiment, think independently and express themselves freely, the vice president said. She also stressed the importance of believing in the creative genius of Africans to find solutions to problems.

Ezekwesili also called on African governments to do more with research grants and to help create the kind of environment which made it possible for university drop-outs like the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, to succeed despite dropping out of college.

Millions of Africans “attend” what she described as the University of Life. These students, she explained, include the young girls and men who repair, reconfigure, unlock cell phones, mend cutting edge flat-screen TVs and other electronic gadgets at the market near Circle in Accra; the youngsters in retail and mechanic shops across Africa; women in retail trade – the so-called “Nana Benz” – as well as African song writers and singers who do their jobs well but have no university credentials to brandish.

The World Bank Africa Strategy sets out to support as many African universities as possible to attain world class status.