At a candid discussion yesterday with African ministers of education and a range of education experts from the public and private sectors, one thing was very clear – that higher education was recognized by everyone in the room as being critical for Africa’s development in the 21st century. All participants—from the Gambia’s education minister, who pointed out that his country went without a university for 30 years after independence and was facing a severe resource gap, to his counterpart in Senegal who wanted to catch up with Tunisia on the number of students enrolled in universities—agreed that higher education was key to diversifying Africa’s growing economies and reducing their dependence on natural resource extraction.
There’s another reason higher education is so important in Africa—the region has burgeoning numbers of young people, some 7 to 10 million of whom knock on the doors of the labor market every year. These young people constitute a huge opportunity for Africa. Yet of today’s unemployed in the region, a full 60 percent are youth. Good quality, relevant education that goes well beyond the primary stage will turn out the types of employable graduates and professionals that Africa so urgently needs. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs—but also agriculturists and environmentalists. This morning’s news about intensifying drought in West Africa’s Sahel region, with 10 million people thought to be short of food, only underscores the great urgency to build human resource bases in each country that can help tackle the environmental and health issues that confront Africa.