UN agency boss urges more investment in tertiary educ

The continent continues to face challenges in tertiary and higher education despite the development ambitions. What is the biggest gap at the moment?
Dr Hamdok address the conference in Kigali last week. Timothy Kisambira.
Dr Hamdok address the conference in Kigali last week. Timothy Kisambira.

Kigali last week hosted a two-day forum on tertiary education convened by the Sustainable Development Goals Centre for Africa. The summit evaluated the status of higher education on the continent which did not paint a very positive image.

The New Times’ Collins Mwai caught up with Dr Abdalla Hamdok, the acting executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) for insights on how higher learning institutions can be improved as well as regional trade issues. Excerpts;-


The continent continues to face challenges in tertiary and higher education despite the development ambitions. What is the biggest gap at the moment?


The biggest issue is financing. Because of problems in financing, we have so many other challenges that are coming up such as quality, curriculum, mushrooming number of private universities venturing into the sector without proper regulation.


Linked to this is the issue of brain drain whereby we continue to lose our best skilled to western countries as they seek greener pastures. These are some of the major challenges.

Some would argue that these are self-inflicted challenges due to our poor priorities. Is that so?

This is an issue of serious debate if Africa is serious about its development. If we are keen on development, then we need to allocate adequate resources to our higher learning institutions and give them priority.

If you look at most of African countries spending, the biggest expenditure is in defense, security which comes to even 70 per cent in some countries. Whereas high education receives about 1 per cent, this reflects our priorities.

It is important for us to consider where we want to go and what to accord priority. In the process, it is also important to study the experiences of other nations and parts of the world.

We can look at the example of newly industrialised countries and developed economies, none of them progresses without prioritising education, innovation and higher learning.

There are multiple calls to bring the private sector on board; however, investments in tertiary education are not only costly but take a long time to pay back. What are the best approaches to interest them?

The private sector will always respond to incentives. This is a role of public policy whereby they can identify areas where they would like them to come in and provide the right frame and structure of incentives.

One of them could be tax breaks. There is also an avenue to link tertiary education to industry where they would open universities and centres of excellence in areas that are being prioritised in development.

In Rwanda, for example, a recent study revealed the mismatch between the graduates and the labour market. What could have facilitated this and how can the country turn it around?

This is about the lack of the right structure of incentives in the education sector. There is need to link between the courses being taught and national development as well as career development.

If we are able to do this, it will be logical to supply and demand. At the moment, the general framework that guides enrollment in tertiary education is the need for a degree without caring about the knowledge and skills.

In most countries, we do not have a clear strategy for career development. There is a role for public policy to put things right. There is need to look at the education sector in the same view of a long term vision and plan for the country. This is by identifying the skills gap and positioning the higher learning institutions to develop certain skills.

Often, when African governments meet, there is talk about the need to improve the levels of intra-Africa trade but little action comes after to follow that up. From UNECA’s point of view, where are the biggest bottlenecks?

For a long period of time, we have talked about tariff and non-tariff barriers which have been addressed in most aspects through trade facilitation and harmonisation of policies.

If you look at intra-Africa trade among regional economic communities, it is way above the 15 per cent average for the continent. Like in the East African Community, it is probably the highest on the continent at about 60 per cent because most barriers have been addressed.

Across the continent, the issue of infrastructure remains an impediment, most of the regional economic communities are not well connected which cuts off movement across various parts. There is still a lot of work to be done in the aspect of connectivity.

Some argue that the low levels of value addition of our exports could be our biggest undoing....

This is a very important aspect in trade development. There has been an argument over time that as primary producers, it’s almost impossible to trade among each other. We need to go a notch higher if we are to develop regional value chains and that will prepare us to go into global value chains.

There are some good signs in terms of policy by some countries. Ethiopia, for instance, took a decision that they are not going to export any raw materials and that they will add value to their products such as textile, leather, coffee and tea.

Students of KIM University during a lecture. File.

The eligibility of Rwanda to continue accessing the American market under African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is currently under review following the EAC region’s stance to phase out and eventually ban second hand clothes import. What’s your take on this?

Trade negotiations have always been a very serious political issue. For countries to have an optimal kind of agreement there are a lot of tradeoffs that we need to consider.

AGOA, in its nature, is a sort of a concession. It is technically like a grant from the US allowing you access to their market.

If you look closer at finer details, yes it provides for free access to the American market but 80 per cent of what was going into their market was oil and minerals. It did not have much impact for countries that did not have such products.

That means that it is going to change because at the moment, the US has a huge surplus of oil and it’s not in their interest. Also, if you look at AGOA in the context of today, the rising protectionism and inward looking West, there are signs that they might not renew AGOA in its original sense.

With the increasing protectionism and nationalism across the West, what are EAC’s best chances of acquiring and maintaining access to European markets?

Experience tells us that we have always benefitted from negotiating as a bloc because our small fragmented economies cannot push for a better bargain compared to when they go in as a bloc. We should be able to have a common African position which will be our strengths.

The latest report by UNECA put the level of illicit financial flows from Africa at about $80 billion, which is more than the continent gets as donations and grants from the West. What approaches are being rolled out to curb this?

Illicit financial flows are an African problem that calls for a global approach to solve it. The starting point is that due to a number of activities and campaigns to address the issue, the concern has been put on the global agenda.

What is left is to implement the recommendations of the high level panel to be able to address the concerns. Some issues have to do with legislation.

Due to the fight against terrorism and money laundering, there are fewer areas to hide at the moment. What is left is the commercial aspect of illicit financial flows which is linked to activities of multinationals through avenues such as tax evasion, tax avoidance and such issues.

Africa should only entertain clean businesses that are willing to pay taxes and not any business that has the intention of looting.


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