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Brave new world? International tertiary education in 2037

In 2018, sub-Saharan Africa contributed 1.6% of scientific publications globally, despite having 10% of the world adult population. Photo: iStock

"By 2037 there will be an extra 115m young adults globally. And, crucially, these will be almost all in Africa"

The British Council Research proposed three possible scenarios for 15 years hence.

The Core Scenario called “Adjusting to a Changing World” saw many more millions of middle-class “consumers” eager to buy higher education from around the world; the normalisation of hybrid education (part online, part in person); a negative perception of online only education; and a shift of top HE institutions towards East Asia and particularly China.

Alternative Scenario A: “A More Insular World” envisages a divided and insular landscape with restricted opportunities for international mobility; greater inequality within and across nations; and threats to democracy leading to instability in funding and information.

Alternative Scenario B: “Open and Inclusive”, on the other hand, describes a rapid world recovery from the pandemic with technology roll-out giving more equal access to digital education across the globe; advanced economies preferring face-to-face experiences; and HE institutions struggling to keep up with a very buoyant demand.

These scenarios are imaginings – even if built on the opinion of experts. But there is one reality that is not imagined.

Underpinning all three scenarios is huge youth population growth. By 2037 there will be an extra 115m young adults globally. And, crucially, these will be almost all in Africa.

The populations of North America, Europe and Asia by contrast will have barely changed since 2020. So, it was a surprise to me that the report did not deal with how we bring the African continent more centrally into deliberations on the future of tertiary education.

There are good reasons to do so, particularly if we are to avoid the rather depressing Scenario A.

“There is little doubt that education and research partnerships between the global North and Africa are unequal”

There is little doubt that education and research partnerships between the global North and Africa are unequal. In 2018 sub-Saharan Africa contributed only 1.6% of scientific publications globally, half of which was generated by South Africa alone. This despite having 10% of the world adult population.

Sub-Saharan Africa had 124 researchers per million inhabitants compared with 263 for South Asia, 539 for Latin America and 1,476 for Southeast Asia. No African University is in the top 200 in the QS rankings and no African University outside South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are in the top 1,000.

There are systemic issues that need to be addressed if the African continent is to play a greater role in the global tertiary education landscape by 2037. This requires deep changes in culture and funding. Research shows that within global North-Africa collaborative projects, African partners often assume minor, non-intellectual roles meaning they may not be included as authors.

Publications from such research are almost exclusively in Western languages and published in journals outside of Africa. The framing of the global North as “developed” or “advanced” and Africa as “developing” is unhelpful. It embeds a one-way “gaze” with global North institutions and funders supporting educational endeavours to aid the continent. It is rare for an African gaze to be directed onto the global North.

At the University of Bristol, our Perivoli Africa Research Centre is working with networks across the African Continent to tackle some of these systemic issues. We are formulating an Africa-based charter for new types of partnerships that will foreground the contribution of African HE institutions as we move towards the Africa-led youth population growth in 2037.

I’m a glass half-full person, so my money is on Scenario B. But Africa needs a voice in ensuring that it happens and happens equitably.

About the author: Professor Agnes Nairn is pro vice-chancellor, Global Engagement, University of Bristol.

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