The duality of the education challenge in Africa: Historical imperatives and 21st century necessities

By News Agency , Agency
Published at 01:05 PM May 15 2024
Illustration of Digital age demand
Photo: File
Illustration of Digital age demand

EDUCATION in Africa stands at a crossroads, confronting dual challenges related to the juxtaposition of existing deficits with the rapidly evolving demands of the Digital Age. Despite the work across several African countries to turn the tide, the number of out-of-school children across the continent remains stubbornly high. And with the rapid advancement of 21st-century technologies presenting new challenges, such as the increasing necessity for digital fluency, African educational systems must adapt swiftly to remain relevant and competitive.

The selection of education as the African Union’s theme of the year presents a unique opportunity to create the necessary policy space for change. As we mark the start of “Africa Month,” it is one of the reasons why the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser is co-organizing our flagship Africa Dialogue Series 2024 with the African Union Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations under the theme “Education through Science, Technology and Innovation toward the Africa We Want.” 

Echoing the call of Secretary-General António Guterres to end the business-as-usual approach, we aim to mobilize African policy and decision-makers to harness innovation and boost access to quality education in Africa.

To fast-track such transformation toward unlocking the continent’s full potential for future generations, it is critical to consider the historical and contemporary challenges affecting education in Africa.

Historical imperatives from an existing deficit

When Professor Wole Soyinka, the famed Nigerian Nobel Laureate and scholar, spoke on “Rearming the University Idea” at our Academic Conference on Africa 2023, he made it clear that the African educational system has been delivering high-calibre results for decades, citing the successes of African universities “from Makerere through Ibadan, Achimota all the way to Dakar.” Alongside Africa’s rich cultural heritage and traditional teachings that forged well-rounded individuals for many years, this has established the continent as an educational powerhouse for a period.

Unfortunately, political instability, conflicts, mismanagement, external shocks and other crises disrupted the system, leading to forced school closures, reducing access to safe learning environments and creating a shortage of quality teachers. These challenges impeded academic progress while depriving students of vital social and emotional support received from educational institutions. Over time, this change triggered a cycle of poverty and marginalization, hampering socioeconomic development and stability across African communities.

Despite recent progress, the data on the resulting deficit is sobering. Over 100 million children remain outside the formal education system in Africa, with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s Institute for Statistics highlighting that one-fifth of children between the ages of six and 11, one-third between the ages of 12 and 14 and nearly 60 per cent of young people between 15 and 17 are not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa. UNESCO also reports that the continent needs more than 6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2030.

However, there is an opportunity to reverse these trends and make significant gains by harnessing the multiplying effect of science, technology and innovation to deliver quality education in Africa.

Modern necessities from emerging technological demands

The continent has made strides towards digital transformation in the past decade. For example, as Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a remarkable 115 per cent increase in Internet users between 2016 and 2021, over 160 million Africans acquired broadband Internet between 2019 and 2022, facilitating access to various digital services, including online learning. The adoption of digital payment methods has also surged, with nearly 200 million more people completing digital transactions between 2014 and 2021. This reflects the growing significance of the digital economy and its impact in Africa.

This exponential growth in digital technologies and the advent of new fields, such as big data and artificial intelligence, presents challenges and opportunities for African educational systems. While digitalization could enhance learning outcomes, foster innovation, and expand access to academic resources, it amplifies existing disparities.  The continent’s recent technological boom, however, suggests Africa has the potential to harness this accelerating digital revolution and bring about change, including the transformation of its educational system.

To maximize the opportunities ushered in by this Digital Age, education systems in Africa need to leapfrog into modernity and equip the next generation of Africans for the future of work. This entails fundamentally reimagining educational approaches to cultivate the skills and competencies needed to thrive in a rapidly evolving digital landscape and succeed in the digital economy. It also needs to include initiatives to bridge the digital divide, which remains stark. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Internet penetration in Africa was around 28 per cent compared to the global average of 51 per cent in 2019.

As we stressed in our 2023 report “Solving paradoxes of Africa's development: financing, energy and food systems, ” effective country systems must underpin these initiatives and be ready to invest in the needed infrastructure, skills development, and regulatory frameworks they require. With this impetus, Africa can transform its educational system and unlock inclusive growth, prosperity and durable peace.

Integrated policymaking to address dual challenges

Addressing these dual challenges requires a nuanced policy mix that tackles existing deficits while addressing the demands of rapid technological advances. We must implement strategies that prioritize educational reform, infrastructure development, teacher training, and digital literacy.

Tackling root causes of crises: This component is essential in creating an environment of stability and durable peace where education thrives. This includes addressing political instability and conflicts to safeguard the right to education and foster sustainable progress in Africa.

The duality of Africa's educational challenges requires such a forward-thinking policy mix. This is a different approach aiming to address the root causes of underlying issues. It manages development instead of implementing band-aid solutions and projects that manage poverty. So, one of our key objectives at the Africa Dialogue Series this year is to foster an exchange that leads to innovative, implementable policy recommendations that centre on Africa’s long-term progress.

Throughout this Africa Month, let us approach our engagements by leveraging Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ message as our guiding compass. He said, “We can’t build a future for our grandchildren with a system built for our grandparents.” Let us work together to transform education in Africa by harnessing science, technology, and innovation.

This is how we build the Africa we want. The Africa the world needs.

By Cristina Duarte