In a dark tunnel
Harare – The drying up of funding for the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) is bad news for regional higher education and the integration agenda.
SARUA, founded in 2005, has membership of 57 universities from SADC's 15 members and has all along been largely funded by The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SARUA was “established to assist in the revitalisation and development of the leadership and institutions of higher education in the Southern African region, thus enabling the regional higher education sector to meaningfully respond to the developmental challenges facing the region”.
Its overall aim is to strengthen the leadership and structures of institutions of higher education in Southern African to contribute to the regional development and integration.
SARUA says there will be efforts to raise funding and reconstitute the body in a form appropriate to a second phase of collaborative activity; and in a circular to members, the association’s executive committee said it had decided last month to undertake a strategic exercise “to plan our future direction, and to develop a future funding model”.
The union had made “enormous strides” at policy level and left a “significant footprint and brand has been consolidated showing the potential and real possibilities for regional integration and collaboration within the SADC region”, according to SARUA chair and University of Johannesburg Vice Chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg.
The full import of the funding discontinuance can be measured in what the union has achieved in its short existence.
In a review of the union entitled “The Southern African Regional Universities Association Seven Years of Regional Higher Education Advancement 2006-2012”, Prof John Butler-Adam notes the significant strides that have been made.
SARUA’s achievements have been reviewed from the perspectives of regional mapping and identity; knowledge bases and their significance; policy contributions; leadership development; and co-operation.
“SARUA has laid the foundation and highlighted the significant issues on the basis of which the cause can be promoted and given effect,” says Prof Butler-Adam.
“Other organisations have been providing detailed data and analyses that offer valuable insights and understandings of the situation within institutions and, in doing so, have created networks of committed university academics and administrators.
“These need to be harnessed along with SARUA’s admirable work. And, perhaps most importantly within the broad regional context, sub-Saharan Africa is poised to take tremendous economic and social strides forward – provided higher education is fully supported so that it can play its central role with efficiency – not just with regard to economic growth, but also as the promoter of democratic freedoms.”
State of Affairs
Prof Butler-Adam's review contextualises the major features of higher education in the region.
According to the review, SARUA identified the eight major features of the SADC higher education landscape.
It notes that systems of higher education in Southern Africa are, on the whole, elite systems because, overall, higher education provision in the region is low by world standards.
“While there has been rapid growth in student enrolments,” says the review, “country systems remain small so that the competition for places is high.”
Demand for higher education has outstripped capacity and this, in some cases, has led to overcrowding and concerns about the quality of offerings and humanities and the social sciences enrol the largest numbers of students.
The review says that head counts in disciplines such as science, engineering, technology and medicine are, by comparison, relatively low while there is a “strong trend” in the region towards undergraduate education, with doctoral enrolments comprising around one percent of total enrolments.
To this trend might be added the fact that, in many countries, there are slightly more female than male undergraduates.
The review states that there is a growing shortage of university teachers, as the current cohort of academic staff members is ageing, and few young people are choosing an academic career.
“This situation is all the more grave if the need for expansion in the system, to meet the growing demand, is taken into account,” notes the review.
A shortage of suitable infrastructure and limited ICT and library facilities characterise current conditions and hamper future growth and while the demand for additional funding to improve access to higher education is likely to reduce the funds available for research.
The report notes that with the exceptions of Malawi and Zimbabwe, there are more private than public institutions of higher education.
“The private institutions are, however, small for the most part, offer practice-orientated programmes and have relatively small enrolments,” says the report.
The regional union has achieved so much thus far that the gains simply cannot be lost, notes Prof Butler-Adam.
“They (gains) must be turned into regional higher education systems that will change the lives of the region’s people at a rate not previously imagined,” he says.