Education is the key to lifting people out of poverty and enabling social mobility, said Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) Professor Tawana Kupe during a recent online panel discussion titled The Challenges of Education in Africa.
Hosted by Kairós, a network of experts in education of which Prof Kupe is a member, the key question under discussion was: ‘How can Africans foster new forms of partnerships to reimagine a future for education and a new society that is inclusive?’
Prof Kupe was joined on the panel by Professor Charles Igwe, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria; Professor Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dakar; Dr Tamala Tonga-Kambikambi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zambia; and Professor Paulo Speller, Emeritus Professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso in Brazil. The discussion was moderated by Professor Alta Hooker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast.
Prof Kupe highlighted the reasons why education is so important in the African context and why a discussion of this nature could not have come at a better time as the COVID-19 pandemic strengthens its grip on people’s livelihoods and future prospects of employment.
“In the context of Africa, I think one has to start by making a few propositions: education is vitally important in lifting people out of poverty, as well as for enabling social mobility; for people to improve their own lives, and those of their families and people in their community; to make a contribution to national sectors whether the public sector, private sector or civil society; and it is generally key to the development of the human resources necessary to drive socioeconomic development so that the continent can address its challenges.”
The levels of inequality in Africa are well documented. In fact, according to estimates by the World Bank, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world based on its Gini coefficient, a measure used by statisticians to gauge economic inequality within a particular country. Prof Kupe believes that this economic inequality not only gives rise to gender inequality, but that it also disproportionately affects youth, who make up a large portion of Africa’s total population. He also asserted that because of this, it is no surprise that the education sector is imbalanced.
“The factors that have affected access to education in Africa are not only those that have been brought about by COVID-19,” said Prof Kupe. “COVID-19 has just exacerbated existing challenges, and these challenges are the unevenness of the university system and that of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. You find schools that are not appropriately equipped with 21st-century technologies, which leads to people getting qualifications that are not appropriate to an emerging labour market, which is driven by technology, globalisation, internalisation and all of those factors.”
Prof Kupe was, however, quick to point out that for every challenge that Africans face, there is a corresponding opportunity.
“Africa has an opportunity here, despite the digital divide… This will deepen inequality, but no problem is beyond solution. Key to the solution is major public investment in technology and infrastructure complemented by private sector investment. It is important that some of the problems that Africa faces are addressed through education: gender inequality, which is rooted in inequitable access; youth unemployment; the divide between the urban and rural in Africa; and also the gap between countries that have developed sectors of their economies relative to those that haven’t. That can be addressed by educating and upskilling the population, which levels the playing field. Evidence shows that a person with a degree in Africa has a better chance of getting a job.”
In her closing remarks, Dr Tonga-Kambikambi implored Africans to use the disruption caused by COVID-19 to rethink and reconfigure the pedagogies of the continent’s tertiary education institutions.
“In this new normal, we have an opportunity, because in the ordinary pedagogy, teachers are spending a lot of time planning and marking,” she said. “With the new normal and an increase in the use of technology and these devices, we can leverage time and free it up to allow teachers to do what they are meant to do, so that we actually have a lot more teaching and a little less of the administrative side of teaching.”