Concern over higher education systems in Central Africa

Higher education systems in the Central African region are struggling and outdated, have failed to shift the balance from the humanities to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and fall short in terms of research output and innovation, according to panellists who participated in a virtual meeting of the 36th Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts (ICE) for Central Africa.

Higher education systems in the Central African region are struggling and outdated, have failed to shift the balance from the humanities to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and fall short in terms of research output and innovation, according to panellists who participated in a virtual meeting of the 36th Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts (ICE) for Central Africa.

The region includes Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo. Others are Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Speaking during the presentation of the ICE-Central Africa’s report, Building Skills for Economic Diversification in Central Africa, which was also the theme of the meeting in mid-November, Ingrid Olga Ghislaine Ebouka-Babackas, the Congo’s minister of planning, statistics and regional integration, said the region cannot develop without workers having relevant skills.

“For now, what we need is an adequate workforce to facilitate economic diversification and industrialisation and that means our higher education systems must be strengthened,” said Ebouka-Babackas.

According to the report, there is a persistent mismatch in all 11 countries between the skills required in the labour market and the skills of graduates emerging from the sub-region’s universities and other tertiary education institutions.

“That aspect bears witness that education systems are out of touch and are not aligned with the demands of the economy,” stated the report.

Concern over research output

The issue is that, although the sub-region has improved access to primary education, the declining trend in the transition to secondary school has resulted in a sharper decline at the tertiary level. According to the World Bank data-sets, the gross enrolment ratio is the lowest in Equatorial Guinea (2%), Chad (3%), Central African Republic (3%) and Burundi (4%).

In Central Africa, Cameroon has the highest gross enrolment ratio at 14%. Gross enrolment ratio, according to UNESCO, is the number of students enrolled in a given level of education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the official school-age population corresponding to the same level of education. In this regard, many universities in the region, according to the report, had been struggling to attract and to retain students, especially women.

Panellists expressed concerns over Central African universities’ low ranking, not just globally but also on the continent, in terms of research output and quality of training. “Their rankings reflect low competitiveness at regional and international levels,” noted several panellists.

The poor research output among countries in Central Africa is reflected in the last year’s SCImago rankings, a platform that grades countries based on journal article publications and other scientific indicators, as contained in Scopus and Elsevier databases. At position 90 and with 18,273 articles, Cameroon was the highest-ranked country in Central Africa out of the 240 countries graded globally.

Placed at position 117, Congo came second in the sub-region with 5,305 articles, followed by Rwanda at position 131 with 3,698 publications, while Gabon took the third slot at position136 after having published 2,925 articles. Worst performers included Chad that was placed at position 180, after publishing 621 articles, followed by Equatorial Guinea at position 201 with 237 papers.

Even after drawing experiences from the Cameroonian university education system, which is the most advanced in the sub-region in terms of enrolment and research output, ICE-Central Africa stated the quality of higher education in those countries is sliding towards the bottom of global classification.

“The quality and capacity of education systems to meet the needs of a competitive economy remains a concern in the entire sub-region,” noted the report.

No employment prospects

The report argued that the general low performance in mathematics and science continues to have a negative impact on the quality and types of skills entering the labour market. Reflecting on the Chadian higher education system, the report noted that only 2% of graduates are in technical fields.

Summing it up, the African Development Bank (AfDB) in its regional report, Central Africa Economic Outlook 2020: Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed out that the main problem with Central African universities is the output of many graduates with little or no employment prospects. “Finding a solution to the problem of inadequate industry-relevant training should be a priority for governments,” said AfDB.

The committee of experts faulted the countries’ graduates for shunning technical education, an issue that had been highlighted by business leaders who complain of difficulties in finding skilled workers for their companies. Indeed, the hierarchy of occupations according to students’ order of preference in Central Africa is highly skewed to management and other white-collar jobs.

According to Antonio Pedro, the director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s (UNECA’s) sub-regional office for Central Africa, the best-qualified university cadres in Central Africa are found in humanities rather than engineering sciences. He told panellists attending the conference that, if the sub-region were to make progress in its industrialisation agenda, “then the focus on the arts, humanities and non-applied sciences from mid-secondary to tertiary levels of education must shift”.

An analysis of the shares of graduates by field of specialisation in universities in Cameroon showed that more than 70% of students are enrolled in non-science academic fields, while 25% are in STEM disciplines. Surprisingly, agricultural-sector graduates accounted for less than 1% of the total, despite the identification of agriculture as a major priority for the country and the sub-region.

Although the 11 countries in the region were not similar in terms of socio-economic status, higher educational progress and labour markets, in the area of scientific and technical education, they faced almost the same difficulties, said UNECA.

Innovation poverty

According to UNECA, the area of science, technology and innovation in Central Africa remains largely rudimentary compared with developments in South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya and Tunisia. “Research and development spending remains below 0.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in all countries of the sub-region,” stated the report.

But what is still worrying is that no country in the sub-region is up to the target of 1% of GDP allocated to research and development, as recommended by the African Union. Panellists warned that, unless countries increased the supply of scientists, engineers and highly skilled technologists to the labour market, there would be no capacity to drive the industrialisation and innovation agenda.

Of general concern, the ICE-Central Africa meeting noted, there is a steep gender bias in higher education, especially in STEM fields, in the universities and even in technical and vocational education training institutions. According to UNESCO, whereas the share of women researchers in the Central African Republic stands at 41.5%, it is modest in Chad (4%), Democratic Republic of Congo (9%), Congo (13%) and Burundi (14%).

The ICE-Central Africa session called for strengthening gender representation while attempting to develop technical skills in higher education. Given the high stakes of getting a highly skilled workforce, Vera Songwe, UNECA’s executive secretary, urged governments to swiftly reform their current higher education systems by upgrading training in STEM fields, research and innovation.

Commenting on the issue, Pedro said weak submissions for patents and other intellectual property rights were indicators that innovation, which is one crucial factor for economic diversification in the developing world, is weak in the sub-region.

“In this regard, our member states must urgently invest in quality higher education and promote skills for innovation,” he said.

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