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Low enrolment in higher education impedes Africa

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Low enrolment in higher education poses a series of impediments to Africa's development, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Koichiro Matsuura has said.

Speaking at the opening of the Education Leaders Forum (ELF) tagged, 'Success and Sustainability: Tertiary Education's Global Challenge', organised by Microsoft Corporation at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, recently; Matsuura observed that 'while higher education enrolment in Africa rose by some 66% between 1999 and 2005, the average enrolment rate is still a mere 5%.'

This poses a series of impediments, he said, 'First, because higher education is vital to having the leaders, managers and scientists Africa needs to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development; but also, because of the importance of higher education in ensuring an adequate supply of qualified teachers.'

'It is estimated that Africa must train four million new primary teachers if it is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. To help countries meet this demand, UNESCO has launched the Teacher Training Initiative in sub-Saharan Africa (TTISSA). This includes advising countries in the effective use of ICTs to enhance the quality and scale of teacher training,' the Director-General said.

According to him, all countries face the challenge of transforming tertiary education to drive national competitiveness in ways that also support long-term sustainable development (in the fast changing 21st century). The new information technologies can facilitate access to quality learning and make education more relevant and effective. This is particularly important in Africa, which has the greatest needs in terms of higher education.

How then can e-technology help higher education better prepare students for the future? This was the key question explored by no fewer than 130 participants from more than 40 countries, including education ministers, vice chancellors of universities, senior officials, other policy leaders and students at the Forum.

Matsuura urged them 'to give special attention to how we can work with those regions furthest from achieving international development goals, in particular sub- Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, to build an international partnership for development (MDG 8).'

He paid tribute to Microsoft for co-organising the two-day forum with UNESCO, under their global cooperation agreement, which he signed with Mr. Bill Gates in November 2004. 'The partnership', he said, 'is an excellent example of how UNESCO is collaborating with the private sector to achieve the objectives of World Summit on the Information Society, along with other internationally agreed development goals.'

Part of that UNESCO-Microsoft agreement is the sub-regional Information and Communication Technologies Resource Centre for Youth in Tunis, opened in 2005.

The Director General said, 'Through this and other groundbreaking projects such as ICT Competency Standards for Teachers, Community Multimedia Centres, Partners in Learning, and Innovative Teachers Forums, the partnership demonstrates how technology can improve access to quality education, as part of our work to build inclusive and equitable knowledge societies. These are two of UNESCO's top priorities.'

Earlier, Microsoft's Vice President, World Wide Public Sector, Mr. Ralph Young, said, in his introductory remark, that dwindling enrolment in tertiary education was a global challenge. According to him, only 10% of potential students in China, for example, would enrol in tertiary education next year, down from nearly 20% in 2006. 'We're seeing so many other countries following this trend and we need to realise it may not be possible to satisfy this demand through traditional mediums.'

'Education is the key to solving many of the problems in this world – technology will enable this by removing limitations, fostering innovations and allowing both students and teachers to achieve their full potential.'

He referred to the annual 'Imagine Cup' competition, organised by his company, which encourages innovation, design and practical implementation of a range of skills from students worldwide. He tool a particular note of last year's contestants, a Greek team named 'Noesis', which developed a computer system using RFID (Radio Frequency ID) technology to measure stress levels of autistic students. This then recommended education tailored to keep the students' stress levels down and ensure optimum learning.

In the first keynote address, United States of America's Secretary for Education, Mrs. Margaret Spellings drew attention to the paradox in education saying quality education opens doors of opportunities, yet most of it takes place in isolation. She advised that higher education be more agile, informative and student-centred. It must also be accessible, affordable and accountable.

In the US, she said the gap between students who can afford higher education and those who cannot is narrowing, partly due to a US$400 million grant to needy. Equally important and calling for closer attention by countries, is teacher retention. In the United States for example, Spellings noted, about half of the teachers leave the system within five years. Reforms, programmes and budgets have however been employed to tackle this.

Other Keynote Speakers were the Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, UNESCO, Abdul Waheed Khan; Microsoft Corporate Vice-President, Technology Policy and Strategy, Anoop Gupta and the European Union Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, Jan Figel.

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