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University Education Must Serve As Ladder Out of Poverty - World Bank   
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The World Bank has called on African governments to expand access to and to ensure that both the quality and relevance of tertiary education serves as a ladder for Africans to climb out of poverty.

“Universities need to pay more attention to quality and relevance of higher education to economic growth and competitiveness,” World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region, Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili, told a two-day conference that opened Monday at the University of Ghana, Legon.

She described Ghana as “the perfect example of how the expansion of access to higher education is interlinked with solid economic growth and the sharp declines in poverty.” With about 30 percent of its budget spent on education, Ghana has grown the number of its public and private universities to over 120.

Between 2004 and 2011, World Bank funding in support of innovation in teaching, in learning, in Ghana has been a total US$35million -- about US$6.5million of which has benefitted the University of Ghana, Legon. University enrollment in the country has increased 13-fold, from 14,500 students to over 150,000 by 2010.

Regrettably, across Africa only about six percent of the potential tertiary age group is enrolled in a tertiary institution, compared to a world average of 25.5 percent. Nine of the ten countries with the lowest tertiary enrollment in the world are in Africa.

Participants at the conference, convened to discuss ways of transforming Legon into a world-class university, stressed the need for university training to boost job-creation and income-generating opportunities -- especially for girls, women, and the talented but poor students. About seven-to-ten million African youngsters join the ranks of job seekers every year.

In his speech, the Vice Chancellor of University of Ghana, Prof Ernest Aryeetey, recounted: “… At my induction into office as Vice-Chancellor more than a year ago, I emphasised seven areas of focus to reflect the vision of making Legon a world-class university.

These were 1) Promoting academic excellence through enhanced teaching, learning and leadership training, 2) Promoting academic excellence through significantly expanded and relevant research and extension 3) Overhaul of governance arrangements in administration, teaching and research, 4) Better management of university assets and facilities, 5) Scale-up efforts toward equal opportunity in gender and diversity, 6) Enhance fund-raising activities at unit and central administration levels, 7) Mainstream and enforce structures and processes for monitoring and evaluation… Since taking office, I have worked with several teams to see how best these ideas can be turned into actionable programmes.

I am happy to say that with significant contributions from my colleagues, we are making steady progress on that score…” Elite universities play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and to apply their learning to industries, making a broader range of products that win customers worldwide. A recent World Bank study concluded that a knowledge-intensive approach to development is likely the only path for sustained development in Africa in an interwoven and interdependent global economy.

To bring about the game-changing transformations needed in Africa’s tertiary institutions, the World Bank Vice President told the conference that the approach must be “business unusual”. Students, she stressed, must work hard and strive to excel at all times if African universities are to attain world-class status; faculty members must continue to make enormous sacrifices to foster education; and universities must have a more dynamic and visionary leadership at the helm.

“The next inventions… the next iPad and the next on-line sensation like Facebook or Twitter are within your reach,” Ms. Ezekwesili told students, sharing advice she also gives to her three college-going sons.

She observed that Ghana’s founding president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, probably assumed that Africans would prioritise achieving the education kingdom as a pre-requisite to seeking the political kingdom, and hoped that the economic kingdom would be added onto them. The conference also stressed the importance of private sector participation in funding universities, warning that African governments will never have enough money to fund tertiary education alone.

The private sector has a very high stake in ensuring that students graduating from universities are indeed skilled workers, inventors, entrepreneurs not just full of “big-book” but unable to translate their knowledge into contributions at the workplace or in society.

“We need to leverage our collective strengths across national boundaries and build linkages with existing pools of world-class knowledge,” she said, calling for a more dynamic and visionary leadership of African universities and regional collaboration among African higher education institutions keen to achieve excellence, particularly in science, technology and innovation.

The World Bank urged African governments to “redefine and limit their role to creating an enabling environment for private sector participation (policy, strategy, tax incentives, labour laws, access to student loans, etc.), and setting adequate standards, regulations, and accountability mechanisms.”

World-class universities will emerge in Africa only if governments accept that these institutions have to be run by education specialists, not political appointees; and only if they are treated as laboratories where students and faculty can experiment, think independently and express themselves freely. She also stressed the importance of believing in the creative genius of Africans to find solutions to problems.

Ms. Ezekwesili also called on African governments to do more with research grants and to help create the kind of environment that made it possible for university drop-outs like the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, to succeed despite dropping out of college.

Millions of Africans “attend” what she described as the University of Life. These students, she explained, include the young girls and men who repair, reconfigure, unlock cell-phones, mend cutting edge flat-screen TVs and other electronic gadgets at the market near Circle in Accra; the youngsters in retail and mechanic shops across Africa; women in retail trade – the “Makola Woman” or “Nana Benz” – as well as African songwriters and singers who do their jobs well but have no university credentials to brandish.

The World Bank Africa Strategy sets out to support as many African universities as possible to attain world-class status.

Representing government at the event, Ms Sherry Ayittey, Minister of Environment, Science and Technology, stated government’s commitment to support Legon reach higher heights, and stressed the need for the private sector to come on board more fully to support higher education in Ghana.

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