MUTARE, Zimbabwe - Africa's colleges and universities are seeking partners and innovations that will help them remain solvent, relevant, effective and accessible in the new millennium.
Those characteristics were emphasized throughout a daylong educational symposium Nov. 15 at Africa University. The gathering opened the weekend's 10th anniversary celebrations for the only United Methodist-related degree-granting institution in Zimbabwe.
African scholars and higher education officials joined for dialogue with the presidents of the United Methodist Church's 11 historically black colleges and universities as well as officials from other American schools. Meeting in the main lecture hall of the new Bishop Lawrence J. McCleskey Faculty of Theology Building, the participants discussed challenges and prospects facing higher education in Africa.
The event marked the first meeting in Africa for the Council of Presidents, comprising the leaders of the church's black colleges and universities. The group participated in a panel discussion about forging partnerships with Africa University and other African institutions.
Johnnetta Cole, president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., said the idea for building partnerships between the black colleges and those in Africa is not new. Many relationships exist already, she noted. For any partnership to be of value, she said, the two parties must have mutual respect for one another; have clear and definite knowledge of one another's history and story; address respective interests and needs; be based on reciprocity; and have a way of evaluating each other honestly and critically.
Robson Silitshena, chairman of the symposium subcommittee and dean of Africa University's faculty of humanities and social sciences, noted that the United Methodist-related black colleges and the African institutions of higher learning share similar histories. "All have come into being to serve the [disregarded] and the underserved," he said.
African institutions can look to the historically black colleges as models for marketing themselves to corporate and private-sector supporters and philanthropists, he said. Africa's schools are facing increasing costs and decreasing financial support from all levels, as well as inflation and academic flight, leading them to seek out partnerships in the private sector, he said.
Eldred Jones, emeritus professor at the University of Sierra Leone, agreed. The lack of financial support from government and other sources is inhibiting the development of tertiary or third-level academic institutions, he said. Universities are increasingly aware that they must generate income for themselves, and they are doing so by selling consultative services and ideas generated in their laboratories.
In most of Africa, the lack of employment opportunities after graduation forces many students to leave the continent. Colleges and universities are responsible for identifying the causes of unemployment and how it can be countered, Jones said.
Linkages with the historically black colleges and universities of the United Methodist Church and others in the United States is natural, but the more relevant first step would be linking institutions within the same country and across Africa, Jones said. African schools must establish networks among faculties, departments and other groups to share common problems and solutions.
Most African countries share common histories and social conditions. Jones said African higher education must adopt a critical attitude "both to what we have and what has been brought to us. This should be a guiding principle in the selection of what we teach and how we teach it." The aim in teaching, he said, is to produce men and women who are both critical and creative. Students should be encouraged to be thinkers and doers, rather than accumulators of facts and received knowledge, he said. "This must be so if they are to be instruments of change, working towards the realization of a just and consequently stable society."
The search for and dissemination of truth is central to the purpose of higher education, Jones said. That quest must always be at the forefront, regardless of the problems schools are facing. The institutions also must ensure that they are relevant to the needs of the people in the community.
In his keynote address, Swithun Mombeshora, Zimbabwe's minister of higher and tertiary education, said the government invited the private sector to participate in making university education accessible to all. "Africa University was the first private initiative in this challenging area."
Africa University has emerged as a "cosmopolitan enterprise, rich in cultural and intellectual diversity," he said. The university, which has more than 1,000 students enrolled, has definitely become "a pan-African university of repute, drawing students from all over the world."
Mombeshora expressed the government's "unequivocal" support for Africa University and others in Zimbabwe, noting that they have widened the access to higher education. However, he said, universities in Africa, as in other places, are under pressure to be more relevant to society by being more responsive to societal needs, current with technology and flexible in their structure.
He praised Africa University's efforts to foster peace and conflict resolution on the continent through its establishment of the Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance. He also warned that the university sector is highly competitive, and "survival depends on innovation, imagination and creativity." The university, he said, must continue aspiring to carve a niche for itself in Zimbabwe, Africa and the world.
By Linda Green