The education sector on the African continent faces various challenges, some of which always recur. They include funding, strikes and protests, poor education systems (the leading challenge), weak education policies and socio-economic issues.
The challenges apply to both the primary and higher education sectors, especially tertiary education in Zimbabwe which has been steadily declining.
Although a lot has been written about these challenges in research papers and discussed at conferences and education summits, perhaps the solutions need to be amplified by African governments together with learning institutions and stakeholders.
It is for this reason that the former education minister in Zimbabwe and now senator, David Coltart, in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, recently authored a policy paper titled, ‘Educating Africa for the Future’. Coltart served as minister for education, sports, arts, and culture from February 2009 until August 2013.
The policy paper outlines various recommendations on how to improve education systems, particularly in the Zimbabwean context, for better future prospects for young people. The recommendations include:
Curriculum must balance academic and vocational education
According to the paper, aligning education systems and curricula to the national development goals remains a key goal of many countries, especially given the post-independence experience, when some countries realised their education systems were producing graduates who were ill-equipped for the job market.
For example, Kenya and Tanzania, whose post-independence educational systems emphasised self-reliance, had to recalibrate their systems to align with the new realities of the job market. Kenya has, once again, changed its curriculum to competence-based in a bid to prepare graduates for the job market.
“South Africa, Rwanda, Benin, Senegal, Morocco, and even Ghana, have all adopted curricula that focus on building competencies. It is logical that, if any curriculum is going to teach carpentry and joinery or welding and fabrication effectively, teachers must be trained in practical skills and all the materials required to teach such skills provided.
“This requires massive investment. Some institutions teach these practical skills in theory, and, therefore, students come away with limited or non-existent practical skills. To deal with the massive investment, countries such as Ghana have adopted public-private partnerships to inculcate practical skills in their students and match their skills to those in the industries,” the paper reads.
“One of the key challenges in tertiary education is the retention of academics and the payment of competitive salaries to professors and teachers is critically important to retain skills. Tertiary institutions also need to provide practical skills to students because, in Africa, there are insufficient engineers,” Coltart told University World News.
Education must be prioritised in national budgets
According to the World Bank and the Cultural 2022 report on education, Sub-Saharan African countries had cut spending on education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they were unlikely to “implement urgent actions to recover learning losses and address the already high learning poverty levels”. More funding resources, therefore, need to be invested in Africa’s education systems to meet the full academic needs of students.
“In Zimbabwe’s context, tertiary education has been in steady decline due to dramatic reductions in funding and, in some respects, had a more acute effect on the tertiary education sector. Teachers and professors have had to seek employment elsewhere, and it is not easy,” Coltart said.
Optimise use of technologies to improve access to study materials
Coltart, in the policy paper, recommends that teachers as well as professors ought to embrace digital skills which are essential for students across African learning institutions to thrive academically. He emphasised that governments must prioritise investment in educational materials to ensure that all children have access to the educational materials required for fundamental numeracy and literacy skills. While the provision of educational materials for secondary education is important, the key investment required in the short term is in primary education.
“By leveraging on the use of these digital devices, as rolled out in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Rwanda, school children have timely access to computers, and subsequently develop the key digital skills needed to thrive and succeed in the knowledge society. Many other countries, such as Tunisia, Nigeria, Angola, and Uganda, are experimenting with digital literacy programmes with similar objectives,” according to the paper.
Governments should evaluate and value the teaching profession
Years of underfunding of education amid increasing workloads have led to perennial strikes at schools and protests at universities. Agitation for better and more infrastructure to mitigate classroom congestion, and a messy teacher-to-pupil ratio with some higher learning institutions with poor infrastructure in various countries across Africa have lowered the esteem of teaching and lecturing.
For instance, a February 2022 report by the African Union showed that, in Madagascar, frequent absenteeism of teachers and a lack of training for most primary school teachers had not only led to decreased enrolment levels but also a high number of unqualified teachers in the education system.
Other literature shows that, in Ghana, some teachers only have senior high school certificates, raising concerns about the aptitude of teachers, and the quality of teaching in schools.
Eight months ago, public universities in Kenya raised the alarm that lecturers who have not upgraded their academic qualifications to teach degree programmes should be redeployed. It emerged during the academic leaders’ conference that some universities have staff who are unable to teach degree courses because they refused to upgrade their academic qualifications.
“We need to change our mindset as Africans about the value of the teaching profession. We need our best brains to instruct our children. I find it ironic that we Africans treasure all children with a passion and yet are prepared to put our children into the hands of people who, themselves, have a second-rate education and who lack motivation,” Coltart said.
“Across Africa, we have seen a massive brain drain due to uncompetitive salaries,” he added.
Identify and nurture the best talent
Talent spotting, especially for disadvantaged children, is difficult in learning institutions already saddled with high enrolment numbers and teacher shortages, among other weaknesses.
Consequently, some countries have created centres of excellence for the best and brightest in the country to experiment, nurture and perfect their talents in academics, sports and the arts.
Governments need to invest heavily in ensuring that the talents of underprivileged children are not lost by investing in new schools with excellent facilities which are specifically designed to nurture the unique talents of underprivileged children, if need be.
The starting point in changing the negative education narrative in Africa is to ensure that the best talents are identified, nurtured, allowed to thrive, and given opportunities to compete with the best in the world to inspire future generations. Countries, for instance Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, have centres of excellence for tertiary and university education as per the policy paper.
More public participation, stakeholder engagement, in policymaking
Many governments across Africa develop policies without stakeholder engagement. In the Zimbabwean context, for instance, Coltart said that, as education minister, he had already expressed such a concern and advised that he could not develop policies without consultation during his first meeting with top civil servants in the ministry.
“I then co-opted the leaders from teachers’ trade unions and our best educationists into a National Education Advisory Board (NEAB). Before I implemented any policy, I made sure that there was a broad consensus among my senior civil servants and the NEAB,” he said.
The paper notes that public consultation in policymaking boosts stakeholder and citizen buy-in, improves transparency, and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of policies and regulations.
Autonomy for schools rather than centralised control
The education sector in African countries needs to embrace autonomy as governments develop curricula, channel resources, and efficient schemes and examination systems. Governments throughout Africa need to involve parents in the development of education policies for a fine balance to be achieved, especially since most parents are not educationists.
Focus more on girl-child education
While there is a need for an equitable distribution of educational resources between boys and girls at primary [level] and young men and women at universities, the girl child is a key component in addressing the education crisis in Africa for several reasons. These include teen pregnancies, early marriage, and female genital mutilation.
It is, therefore, necessary to create a national desire to invest heavily in the girl child’s education to reach the anticipated African Union Agenda 2063 that fosters full gender parity, with women occupying at least 50% of public offices.
“The recommendations, if read, debated, and adopted by the policymakers in the education sector across the African continent, can change the face of education to better the future of young people and the rewards are long-term,” Coltart told University World News.