Opinion: East Africa Won’t Secure Its Future Without Equipping Its Graduates To Thrive

Authors: Jon Harle, Flora Fabian

Transforming the prospects of Africa’s graduates – and its young people at large – might be the greatest contribution that universities can make to the global goals. To do that we need to equip the next generation to lead us in the future and to radically improve the quality and relevance of teaching and learning to make that possible. The good news is, there are clear ways to do that.

The campus is buzzing with students. In the lecture halls they’re sat 20 rows deep, squashed onto benches, straining to hear a crackling speaker that’s serving to amplify the voices of classmates who are delivering a presentation. At the back, squinting at the distant screen, it’s difficult to keep up, and while some are trying to put down some patchy notes, for others, smartphones pull their attention away. 

But as government and newspaper editorials implore them to create their own businesses, these students are also learning how few jobs exist, even with a freshly inked degree certificate. 

Across East Africa – and across the wider continent – university systems are rising to the challenge set by their governments and business leaders: help us create a new knowledge-based economy; bring us new innovations and help us incubate new enterprises; help us to drive digital transformation; provide us with young people with practical skills not heads full of theory and concepts. 

Universities are full of talented and passionate people, committed to an agenda of community, national and regional development. 

But at the same time, they are hugely stretched – despite the lack of jobs, student demand grows year on year. Teaching staff and equipment do not. Teaching staff juggle large classes, but many only have their own learning experience to draw on – large lectures, annual exams, teaching for the test. 

The ecosystem for enterprise is fractured and poorly funded so it’s hard to find placements or practical projects, and it’s difficult to see a better way to give students what they crave in the classroom – let alone find time to update their courses. 

We need to shift the everyday practices and the collective capabilities, ways of thinking and behaviours of citizens, communities, industries, professions – and critically to equip the next generation to lead us in the future. 

Here are five ways we can do that.

  1. Be bold. No more small projects creating islands of better teaching. Instead, an ambitious, connected, regional initiative that tackles this as a system challenge: that works at scale to progressively reach more universities and their staff and students, that understands how changes to pedagogy, for example, can not only improve learning but can serve to build new relationships with the world beyond campus.
  2. Use the evidence we have, and keep building the evidence base as we go. Create rapid learning and feedback loops so we can adjust and improve as we learn what works and how. We need to work with agility to track emerging changes and unexpected shifts, and to spot the tipping points for change. We need to be flexible and recognise that there will be different pathways to this change in different institutions.
  3. Leverage growing digital capabilities and an increased digital readiness amongst academics to bring new professional development opportunities on stream and that assist them to channel their passion into practice. We need to recognise that changing deeply rooted practice is hard. We can’t simply do that with an online course, but that by blending the best of in-person and digital support  we can bring learning within reach, at lower cost. Generative AI – used carefully and responsibly – might have role to play here.
  4. Open the doors to communities and break down the walls between research, teaching and practice. We need to bring HE and TVET together in new ecosystems of knowledge and skills. We need to bring communities, policy makers, businesses into the process, to define what is needed, what is taught and how, and to create and deliver learning together through practical workplace and enterprise linked opportunities.
  5. Make learning spaces safe and inclusive, especially for young women. We know it’s not sufficient, but we know that changing the experience and culture of learning and of interactions within universities – for both women and men – can not only – vitally – improve learning outcomes but can also help to shift behaviour in future workplaces and in wider society.


Jon Harle 

Jon Harle is director of programmes at INASP, based in Berlin. He works with educators, researchers, and universities globally to find new ways to strengthen capacity, confidence, and leadership in research, teaching, and learning. Twitter: @jonharle / jharle@inasp.info 

Flora Fabian

Professor Flora Fabian is the founding Vice Chancellor of Mwanza University in Tanzania, a professor in anatomy and biomedical sciences, and INASP Associate. She previously held positions at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences and the University of Dodoma. flora.fabian@inasp.info 

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