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Opinions of Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Columnist: World Economic Forum on Africa

Great leaders aren’t born, they’re made

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Good leaders do not fall from the sky. The experience of successful nations, the world over, emphatically points to the centrality of strong education institutions, and particularly robust higher education systems in deliberately training the leaders who take societies to great heights.

In the best of these institutions, leaders are not only imparted with the hard skills of leadership, but also socialised on value systems that make them the creators and custodians of social ideals.

The Africa Rising narrative presents the most compelling argument for the continent’s prosperity.

Investments in traditional sectors are necessary to realise its promise, as is the imperative to build robust enterprises and institutions.

But the glue that cements all this together is good leadership.

Therefore, there is an indisputable imperative to build a new generation of dynamic leaders with the skills to be effective and with the values to ensure the socio-economic transformation of the continent.

By 2030, a bulk of the world’s workforce will live in Africa. Already, experts project that at current rates, Africa’s population will snowball to 2.5 billion by 2050, which should translate to a demographic dividend which will feed the continent’s growth. Yet it is clear that without certain investments in policy and education, this dividend along with the benefits of hosting the world’s workforce will remain elusive.

Running against the Africa Rising narrative is the continent’s soft under-belly: a frayed higher education system that is buffeted by a combination of resource constraints, limited university places, declining quality, and a growing rift between academic education and the hard skills that the labour market demands.

Africa’s imperative to invest in education raises several questions. How can we ensure that the education Africa’s burgeoning and young population receives prepares them to tackle the challenges of tomorrow’s economy?

Indeed, given the continent’s resource constraints, can Africa’s higher education system provide quality education at scale? If not, as the evidence suggests, can Africa quickly build internationally recognised capabilities for excellence within education?

Simply put, the current state of higher education across the continent is a real threat to the dream of an African Century. Access to university education is limited for many.

For perspective, Africa’s tertiary enrollment rate today stands at an average of 7%. The American tertiary enrollment rate is just over 72%, while China’s sits at about 30%.

This means even if Africa builds 200 new Harvard-sized universities each year for the next 15 years, it still will not close its prevailing skills gaps with India, and will have barely impacted the lot of its young population.

Which is poignant if you consider that 70% of the global labour force in 2050 will be African. At the same time, the workload for teaching staff is unsustainable, with lecturers having to teach classes of up to 500 students. It is a system at breaking point.

Ironically, the weaknesses of current tertiary education systems across Africa provide a framework for a solution.

Any minister of education in Africa will tell you that, already, their government is dedicating, on average, at least 30% of the national budget to education.

Even if we wanted to, we cannot marshal the kind of resources to build new institutions from scratch, or expand the capacity of current institutions enough to meet present, and future, demand.

As it is, the solution lies in innovation: to develop resource-efficient higher education models, with the ability to produce graduates at scale, at a faster rate than we are doing today, while maintaining world class standards.