Students must become full partners in higher education development to keep it tuned to current and ever more rapidly changing demands, according to the two students who presented their cases at the 14th AAU General Conference in Accra, Ghana, on the 6th of June.
Felix Kwabena Donkor, from Ghana, is the president of the African Chapter of the Erasmus Mundus [alumni] Association (EMA). He studied Environmental Sciences through a Joint European Masters at Aalborg University in Denmark, with study periods in Germany and Portugal. “We have to start seeing ourselves more as stakeholders and partners,” Felix says. “Our voice must be embedded in governance bodies. It is one thing to be present as observers, as is now fairly common in Africa, but what students say must also be reflected in decisions that are made.”
Felix has first-hand experience of situations where student voices carry actual weight in decision-making processes. In Denmark, he saw how education continually evolves under the influence of student input.
Tuning higher education
Elisabeth Nyarkoa Osei, of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, is one of the few who has experienced a similar reality on the African continent. She is involved, as a student, in the Tuning Africa project, a joint project of the African Union and the European Union that we have reported on extensively in the past years.
The project redefines higher education teaching, learning and assessment through a broad consultation process that increasingly involves students. “If the heads of institution and academics are able to have a good relationship with students, the student voice would be taken more into account and Africa would be in a much better position to raise a generation of capable graduates who are passionate about leading change processes,” says Elisabeth Osei.
For the civil engineering group of Tuning she asked fellow students about their experiences and fed their ideas back into the international group that worked on defining a pan-African civil engineering curriculum that is based on learning outcomes rather than inputs and better answers to the actual needs of African societies and labour markets.
Connecting with the world of work
Elisabeth and her fellow students found the lack of connection between the worlds of education and work to be the greatest problem with the current teaching practice at their university. “Engineering focused more on theory than on practice,” she says, “but if you are not taught how to use your newly acquired knowledge, your applied science degree has considerably less value in practice than on paper.”
“Even though employers know the university system, they still expect us to be able to apply our knowledge upon graduation. But we can only learn to apply our knowledge through internships, which we didn’t have.” “Tuning helped our faculty to see the programmes from the students’ perspective. We have a trial now [in Kumasi], where students are sent on internships. These are compulsory: without the earned credits, students cannot graduate.” “The professor responsible for Tuning in Kumasi [Professor Mark Adom-Asamoah] has now become the provost of the College of Engineering. As a result, he has not only been able to change the civil engineering programmes, but also those of the other faculties!”
While the results in Kumasi are extremely positive, Elisabeth believes that the word must be spread much further now. “Beyond my university, students don’t know any of this. What we really should have now is a group of Tuning Ambassadors!” Felix Kwabena Donkor also believes that one of the most beneficial things from his study period in Europe was the compulsory involvement with industry, but he found a lot more that he feels could be quite beneficial in an African setting, even though some of these are deeply engrained in academic culture and may take time to change.
“There are other ways in which students, teachers and governors can interact than through formal councils. In general, the distance [in seniority] between students and teachers is shorter in Europe than in Africa.” As many foreign students experience year after year, this can be unnerving initially, but it also means that the travel distance from feedback to action is shorter. If it is easier to critically comment on programmes and teaching, it becomes more difficult for universities and their teachers to just keep repeating things the way they always have done.
But breaking down the seniority hierarchy comes at a price if chaos is to be avoided.
“We need to more directly develop critical thinking skills,” Felix says. “This would not only benefit the students’ contributions to their universities, but also their ability to perform their jobs later in life and their ability to continue learning.” Both students are very aware that being seen as equal partners in educations also comes with increased accountability and responsibilities. “We definitely need to be less passive consumers of education,” says Elisabeth. “We can vent our opinions and complain, but we also need to be better at going out there and finding opportunities for ourselves, rather than waiting for others to solve our problems. The opportunities are there!”
Finding such opportunities requires closer interaction with the other stakeholders in education, such as employers and local communities, who in turn can give back to education. They are partners too. Felix and his colleagues at the Erasmus Mundus Association started an initiative called Knowledge & Action to reach out.
“Just as some examples: we have hunger among students in Johannesburg, where we help through food banks, which we then contribute to again through community food gardens. In Tanzania, our EMA law alumni are giving free legal counsel to poor communities and in Sierra Leone, health students were supporting Ebola sensitisation, helped by our alumni abroad.” “We can share our knowledge in our communities,” he says. “We should go out to find what is needed and how we can help. All of these initiatives ultimately help to take students out of the role of passive consumers of an education they have no say in and instead make them active stakeholders and improve their own learning environment.
Student input into EU-Africa summit
The student session in Accra was hosted by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education, which continues to make a strong case for student involvement in all of the projects it supports in African higher education. Even the upcoming Africa-EU Summit, to be held in Abidjan later this year, will be no exception.
“Preceding the summit, we will bring together alumni from all of our student mobility programmes,” the European Commission says. “We will not only look at Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus+ students, but also, for example, former Nyerere students and Intra-Africa mobility students. With them, we will discuss how they can contribute to improving African education.” “In two separate strands, we will also bring in examples of good practice in education processes and good examples of cooperation between universities and industry with student employability as the main focus.” “The output of these three sets of discussions will be brought forward to the Africa-EU Summit later and as such form direct input for the future of EU support to African Higher Education.”
Felix Kwabena Donkor,
President of the African Chapter of the Erasmus Mundus Association
Elisabeth Nyarkoa Osei,
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology