Former president of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib Fakim. Picture: Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP
Former president of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib Fakim. Picture: Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP

Voices of African female academics critical to drive conversation

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Nov 2, 2021

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Edwin Naidu

Africa's demographic dividend cannot be realised without enhanced equity and representation across society, including senior academic leadership, according to influential gender activist, highly rated scientist, and former president of Mauritius Professor Ameenah Gurib Fakim.

She said that the system would reform itself without being challenged to train the status quo by policymakers, institutional governance unless a growing body of female academics were putting themselves forward and taking up their seats in the boardrooms of academia.

“Africa's greatest potential is its people and key for the region to capture the dividends from population growth fully. One percentage point increase in the working-age population can lose GDP growth by 0.5% point. For this to happen, good jobs must be created in the private sector,” she said.

In conversation with leading female academics and a student from around the continent, the powerful remarks from Fakim during a webinar organised by the University of the Witwatersrand on Monday offered a compelling perspective, particularly on gender and funding of universities

Illustrating her point, Fakim said 20% of Africans find work in the formal sector. But this had to change, and it could with broader access to quality education, health care, and infrastructure services. “Which brings me to the topic that is close to my heart, women. I know that most women in Africa cannot afford not to work, but when they do, they are mostly employed in informal activities. We all know what this means: low productivity, low incomes, low prospects.”

Fakim said these constraints limit access to education, credit, and markets. However, the gains to be made by overcoming these hurdles are immense, mainly through girls' education. By some estimates, the economic loss in developing countries from the education gap between girls and boys could be as high as $90 billion in a year, almost as much as an infrastructure gap for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Furthermore, she highlighted the gross under-representation of women in science, technology-related courses, and professions, along with the gender divide found at the higher education level.

"Science and technology degrees have an average of 30% to 40% fewer female students, and yet equitable access must be at the heart of any modern education system. It is becoming increasingly clear that investments in science technology innovation are no longer an option,“ she added.

Fakim said this conference comes at a critical time to discuss the need to recognise the growing importance of education, knowledge, communication revolution, and the need to mobilise knowledge, science technology as significant growth drivers.

"I'm convinced that the social and economic transformations will happen only when higher education, better access to healthcare, and greater emphasis and knowledge become central to the development debate. With online learning, as we have seen recently, but has become a growing source of education, the quality and access to broadband services, and the online content must become an African imperative.“

She added that shared growth could be achieved only when the new generations of talented and ambitious young Africans are healthy, fully equipped with the right skills, knowledge, and competencies that will enable them to formulate and implement African solutions for African challenges.

“With the continent becoming more and more urbanised, there is a critical need for enhanced infrastructure. How does one close the infrastructure gap? Addressing the infrastructure gap is more than a necessity. Across Africa, only 16% or more roads are paved compared to 50% in South Asia. These shortfalls represent a huge cost to business and to people," she added.

To tackle this challenge, she said there was a need for the continent's tertiary sector to establish partnerships with industry and the private sector.

“This is one of the reasons as to why higher education needs to be increasingly relevant. This strong link can be started through such programs, as this is an excellent way of ensuring that the student is graduating with the necessary and relevant skills that employers need.

“In this regard, there is a crucial need for private sector representatives to be present on university councils. More and more academics need to talk to the private sector or work part-time in their private sector organisations. Unfortunately, this dialogue is not happening in many African universities. And if they are, it is not happening fast enough,” she said.

The first-ever female Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, said in many instances the voices of male academics and male leaders around the university environment reflect on how they view the aftermath of Covid-19. It was time women led the discussions.

While not a panacea to the challenges, LenkaBula said the technology would give future students various choices about how to build and customise their education.

“Power is shifting away from the hands of education. Power is shifting away from selective university admission officers into the hands of educational consumers who will soon have the choice of attending virtually any university in the world online.

“This will dramatically increase competition amongst universities, prestigious institutions, especially those few extremely well-endowed ones with more money to buy, and climate change will be in a position to dominate this virtual global educational marketplace," she said.

LenkaBula said the bottom feeders' for-profit colleges and lower level, public and non-profit colleges would disappear or turn into the equivalent of vocational training institutes. “Universities of all rents below the very top will engage each other in an all-out war of survival. In this whole big-budget, universities carrying high transactional costs tend to lose the smaller, more agile institutions that would have had sound leadership nine years ago, looking at the long term trends of creative disruption, brought about by the evolution of technology," she said.

Therese Tchombe, Professor Emeritus and Honorary Dean at the Faculty of Education, University of Buea, Cameroon, and Unesco Chair of Special Needs Education, also spoke on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and learning, with particular emphasis on new competencies required to focus on digital literacy and communication skills given the changing trends in education impacted by globalisation, emergencies, and pandemics.

She added that special needs education remained sidelined on the African continent. In addressing the new challenges, she said the tertiary sector must develop the capacities and competencies of its lecturers so that they can become more digitally oriented today to address multiple responsive strategies that will enable students to assume ownership of their future direction.

“Whatever innovation we are putting in place, it is important to look at the main mechanics, in our school system, architects in our universities, who are the lecturers to reinforce their capacity, their teaching capacity. So about teaching, universities can be very responsive. In doing that, we need to create a new landscape that is inclusively friendly. We need to digitise our courses and make students more responsible,” she said.

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