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Peter Okebukola holds a PhD in Science Education (University of Ibadan). He received specialised training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Harvard University, both located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He specialises in higher education and science, computer and environmental education. He serves on a number of international organisations as consultant including UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the UNDP. Professor Okebukola is noted as the First African to win the prestigious UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularisation of Science. He is a fellow of the Board of Directors of the International Academy of Education, and a member of the Executive Board of the International Association for Research in Science Teaching. He is also the African representative and member of the Board of Directors of the International Council of Associations for Science Education. He is a fellow and past president of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria as well as of the National Association for Environmental Education. He has won several international gold medals in science and computer education and is the editor of or serves on the editorial board of 25 national and 18 international journals.
As executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC) since 2001, Dr Okebukola has superintended over quality assurance at the 75 universities in Nigeria. The spectrum of quality assurance activities that he has taken responsibility for includes setting new benchmarks and minimum standards for Nigerian universities, the system-wide accreditation of programmes leading to the application of sanctions on failed programmes, the shutting down of illegal satellite campuses of universities, the contextualisation of the UNESCO/OECD Guidelines on Cross-Border Higher Education, the establishment of twenty new private universities and their annual quality audit as well as the development of strategies for institutional accreditation.
Peter Okebukola suggested the creation of an African higher education area based on the European model and talked about the conditions needed to prevent brain drain. He also presented the paper "Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa" at the Third International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education "Accreditation for Quality Assurance: What is at Stake?" held in November 2006.
Peter Okebukola, talked about the future of the higher education system in Africa and the challenges involved.
What are the principal challenges facing higher education in Africa over the next five years?
There are four challenges facing higher education in Africa over the coming years. The first concerns access, because there are many qualified people who wish to enter the higher education system.
The second challenge is derived from the first and relates to the quality of the product of the higher education system. Because of the increasing number of university students, without a concomitant increase in facilities and other resources, including human resources such as teachers, the quality of the system has deteriorated.
The third challenge concerns funding. The dependence of African institutions on governmental funding over the years has meant that they have been unable to take on the responsibility of generating their own funds. Consequently, funding will remain an important issue for the next five years. That is, there will not be enough money to meet the needs of the system, mainly due to the lack of further government funding and the inability of the main institutions concerned to find innovative fundraising solutions.
Finally, the fourth challenge is related to relevance, in terms of the socioeconomic needs of the countries involved. The good news is that many countries are now taking steps to renew their curricula in order to make them more suited to their own needs and more relevant to national characteristics, so that they can produce entrepreneurial and globally competitive outcomes.
In the future, will we be able to speak of an African higher education area? What governmental issues would need to be addressed to make this possible, and when do you believe it might happen?
Yes, we are indeed working on that. In February 2006 the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education was held to look at quality assurance in higher education in Africa, to see how the quality issue can be included, how the quality of processes can be improved and, consequently, how can we achieve products of a high quality. We agreed on an action plan to use the European Bologna Process, a common educational area for the whole of Europe. We are trying to model this for Africa. In five years we will have moved towards tailoring the Bologna Process to the African region. In fact, we already have pan-African institutions and governmental institutions such as the African Union and the Association of African Universities, which can facilitate the development of an African higher education area.
To achieve this, we require the collaboration of the institutions I mentioned and other similar organizations. The African Union, for example, is already developing a ten-year plan for the revitalization of education in Africa.
How do you think higher education affects development in African countries?
Higher education is the key to Africa’s development. The higher education sub-sector produces doctors, engineers, teachers, top-level civil servants and other highly qualified professionals. Therefore, higher education and its products will promote the development of the economy. Secondly, it will develop the key elements for basic education, i.e. teachers who have been trained within the higher education sub-sector.
There is an implicit link between the quality of higher education and the economy and society. If a country can establish a good higher education system, development is ultimately assured. One example is Japan, which has very few natural resources but a large and well-developed knowledge economy and knowledge-based society.
If this is true, what strategies and measures are essential to prevent brain drain in Africa and to enable highly qualified professionals to contribute to its development?
The real question is: why did they leave Africa in the first place? We have to find the push factor in order to prevent good professionals from leaving our region, and we know that the push factor includes the economy. Firstly, the people you mentioned need attractive working conditions in order to stay. Secondly, they need a good working environment. Therefore, if we are able to equip the classrooms, laboratories, workshops and libraries to the level of those that our professionals encounter in other countries, they will be happy to stay, to carry out their research and also to teach students. We must not forget that there are other reasons for brain drain, which are related to the country’s security levels and basic infrastructure.
Those professionals who have already left Africa have become global citizens. Therefore, African governments do not need them to come back permanently. What is being done is to ensure that they can come back from time to time, after spending a number of years outside the country. The goal is to establish collaboration between the foreign institutions that they are currently working for and African institutions so that they can pass on their experience and their newly acquired knowledge and skills.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat at the 3rd International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education, November 27-29 2006. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.