Hit or Myth: UK/Africa Further Education Partnerships supporting Skills Development
by The Africa Unit
The Africa Unit, based at the Association of Commonwealth Universities, aims to promote, facilitate and enhance partnerships between African and UK higher and further education institutions. On 26 March 2010 the Africa Unit hosted a workshop session at 'Going Global 4: The International Higher Education Conference', organised by the British Council. This session provided an interactive opportunity for participants, including selected FE college heads from both the UK and Africa, FE umbrella organisations, policy makers, partnership brokers and funding agencies, to share knowledge and experiences of the construction of innovative partnerships for effective skills development.
The session was opened and chaired by the Africa Unit's Senior Advisor, Professor Myles Wickstead CBE, and comprised two presentations - the first from an African FE perspective, delivered by Dr. George Afeti, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa (CAPA), and the second from a UK perspective, given by Paul Head, Principal and Chief Executive at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London.
Professor Wickstead noted that skills development is critical to the reduction of poverty. Some of these skills are directly relevant to the health and education sectors, and thus to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, it is also true that people without adequate skills for employment cannot participate effectively in the productive sectors of the economy in order to raise their own income levels and stimulate national economic growth - also critical for the MDGs. Skills acquisition is thus an important development issue. FE colleges, as skills training institutions, have an important role to play in national development - as much for Africa as for the UK, particularly in times of economic downturn.
It was noted that very little UK-Africa collaboration has occurred in the FE sector or skills development to date. However, both George Afeti and Paul Head argued in their presentations that the potential for collaboration and mutually beneficial partnerships between UK and African FE institutions existed. George Afeti noted that the FE sector in Africa is now growing, with 150 colleges versus 250 universities across the continent, meaning that the tertiary education landscape is no longer dominated by universities. However, there are still significant challenges in developing partnerships.
A major reason for the limited number of partnerships within the FE sector is a lack of information and the absence of dialogue between FE institutions in the UK and their counterparts in Africa. The major stakeholders in the sector, which include FE college principals, FE umbrella organisations, and partnership brokering and funding agencies, therefore need to develop a better understanding of the FE landscape in the UK and Africa.
In addition, George Afeti argued that there is still a poor public perception of African colleges in the UK and that more needs to be done to tackle stereotyping. A lack of adequate funding and resources, and the inadequate practical skills of teachers in the African FE sector, are often cited as major obstacles to the development of partnerships, In practice, however, constructive partnerships could actually help to overcome these challenges by producing more outward looking institutions; allowing for the mutual examination of institutional cultures; promoting innovation in the fields of curriculum design, teaching methods, administrative and pedagogical systems and practices, and leadership and management training; and possibly bringing much needed resources.
Paul Head focused on the potential benefits for UK colleges of partnering with African institutions. In part as a result of an increasing number of students of African descent, his college naturally has an interest in partnering with African counterparts, for instance in Tanzania and Ghana. Partnerships provide an opportunity for enriching the curriculum for learners, ensuring it relates to their experience and background. His perception of partnerships goes beyond simply raising money and donating equipment by embedding skills development in partner institutions, their staff and learners. But he was also clear that UK colleges could learn a great deal from their African partners, for example how to run a college with very limited resources.
The clear conclusion, following a lively discussion, was that the ability of African and UK FE institutions to attract and develop international partnerships, including external funding and expertise, and to tap into international knowledge-sharing activities, is critical to their role in skills development.