An African Ivy League

As African economies boom and businesses are created, one of the big questions this growth raises is that of third-level education: how can Africa develop a knowledge infrastructure to rival that of the west, a sort of Harvard University in Africa? And what should African philanthropists do to foster the development of top quality educational institutions?

There are two main elements to a knowledge infrastructure across a continent or country: firstly, the actual buildings and practical resources; and second, the soft component, such as knowledge and people, the students who go abroad and then return. Both need investment, and now is the time for Africans to invest.

According to a Harvard University project, the average university enrollment across Sub-Saharan Africa is just 5 percent of the population, which is one of the lowest in the world. Yet researchers have also found that enrollment rates in the region were expected to double in five years - an astonishing rate. Meanwhile, more African students are studying abroad than ever before, often attending Ivy League universities in the US (and elsewhere), and it is to be hoped that these educated young people will return to their countries and contribute to their communities. There are also dozens of prestigious high schools, which have the potential to branch out and establish third-level colleges and institutions.

Some countries are more fortunate than others, depending on their relative development and infrastructure. South Africa has four good universities, and at the University of Cape Town, for instance, one third of students are pursuing post-graduate qualifications. By contrast, countries in western Africa remain especially underserved, leaving much opportunity for expansion in this sector.

So: how can Africa create its own Ivy League, which will provide the best education to the brightest students?

We must begin by establishing that knowledge infrastructure: investing in schools, hiring the best professors, and learning from international models about what works best. Top students should be recruited and urged to continue their education close to home. And African philanthropists, who are already giving so much back to their countries, should be encouraged to turn their thoughts toward third-level education. Patrice Motsepe (who has signed Bill Gates' "giving pledge") has set up a foundation that assigns some of its funds to developing education and leadership.

The incentives to build top African universities are strong. Firstly, it is cheaper to have African students study in Africa. Second, setting up a high quality tertiary education system will contribute to the development of infrastructure and forge solutions that are targeted at Africans. Third-level education is crucial if the region is to develop a knowledge-based economy. As things are, only a minority of Africans receives third-level education, and it is vitally important to give all Africans a chance.

Last but just as important, we need to build an educational infrastructure that covers early and later stages of a person's education. Not only do African students deserve excellent universities, they deserve good elementary and secondary schools too - and then, to have access to ongoing vocational and job training to ensure their skills remain as relevant as possible to African organizations.