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African universities face greatest-ever challenge to educate future digital revolution leaders

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rates of access to quality education in the world. A recent UNESCO report shows that well over half of teens aged 15 to 17 are out of school, without the possibility of resuming school.  Access to education is a prerequisite enabler in achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 by “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning”, but, unfortunately, the continent is projected to fall short of its education commitments for 2030. 

As governments commit available, but meagre, resources to combat the raging coronavirus pandemic and to bolster their dwindling economies, analysts fear that education will miss out on the priority list despite its critical relevance to the development of Sub-Sahara Africa. 

While primary education remains a most pressing matter in terms of international development initiatives, the Sub-Saharan university system has peculiarly escaped the attention of policymakers. Keeping African youth invested in the continent’s, in spite of its high levels of brain drain, is an emerging concern.

“If we don’t look after them, if we don’t equip them, if we don’t give them the propers skills and prepare them, then they’re not going to be useful in the labor market”, Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon, the International Labour Organisation Regional Director for Africa, told African leaders. 

Angolan entrepreneur, Mirco Martins, warns that the continent risks the consequences of creating a lost generation if Africa’s youthful population does not acquire relevant education and skills. In what he called a “double-edged dynamic” of African demographics, Martins observes that whereas Africa boasts of a population growing younger by the day compared to the global North, its immensely untapped human resources will likely waste away, instead of benefiting it.

Martins advises that African leaders should expand access to higher education on key enabling technologies to underpin the youthful Sub-Saharan workforce as the backbone of the region’s digital revolution. 

Writing in the Africa Report, Kenyan-born Dr. Lydiah Kemunto Bosire contests the argument that brain drain is a factor in the diminishing returns of Africa’s education system. She argues that more sophisticated analyses are needed to understand migratory flows in and out of the continent. Instead, she opines, African leaders “should be alarmed about our low capacity to compete in a context where talent is global.” 

University World News’ Chang Da Wan points to the African continent’s universities as the problem. Graduates in the global South “are trained for jobs in a more advanced economy, but may not have the knowledge, skills and capability to contribute meaningfully to the society to which they belong,” he writes. 

The technology magazine Interesting Engineering notes that by 2050, growing access to the internet; improvements in technology; distributed living and learning; and a new emphasis on problem-solving will have changed the nature and trajectory of education in the global South.  Africa’s growing digitization may accelerate the quicker upskilling and access to higher education.

Digitization of education in Africa is corroborated by a recent report suggesting that South Africa leads globally in learning practical STEM trades via smartphones. “We’re seeing more people learning online, especially women, who have since embraced what has historically been seen as male-oriented disciplines,” Anthony Tattersal, vice-president of Coursera EMEA, who published the study, told ItWeb. 

A number of initiatives are underway to ensure the most marginalised are not left out of the digital revolution. For instance, the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa partnership with Nepoworx is training students on green skills and enabling undertake enterprise development, and sustainability research. The program seeks to upskill 900 youth, women and entrepreneurs over the next three years to enable them to participate in the green economy. 

Undoubtedly, advancing practical skills in engineering, science, and technology is essential in closing in on unemployment, inequality, and infrastructural gaps. With foreign direct investment targeting SDGs, private sector financing for higher education, both locally and abroad, could come in handy. Such investment in human capital is a sure way to supply the human resources that are necessary to shake up the whole of Africa with innovative and new ways of thinking.

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