Over the last two to three decades, there has been a gradual increase in the number of higher education institutions in general and private higher education institutions in particular. Accordingly, student enrolment in African higher education institutions has considerably increased since the early 1990s. Moreover, the share of the private sector in the provision of higher education in Africa has moved up, though still low compared to other developing regions, notably Asia and Latin America. Despite this increase in the number of students joining higher education institutions as well as the high number of graduates leaving universities and entering or seeking to enter the job market, there is a growing concern over the deteriorating quality of education in the continent. This is observed at two levels: individual and societal. At the individual level, due to lack of capacity or requisite skills the individual graduate finds it extremely difficult to obtain a place in the competitive world of work. This creates a tension between graduates and their families due to wasteful investment that resulted in unemployment or underemployment and its attendant consequences: labor migration, social unrest and political instability, among others. At societal level, low quality higher education consumes scarce national resources and increases the opportunity cost of unproductive education. Therefore, there is a growing concern on how to resolve the crisis in quality in the context of massification or rapid expansion both in the public and private sectors.

In light of the foregoing, the 15th International Conference on Higher Education in Africa was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 25 and 26 July 2017 under the overarching theme of “enhancing quality through public private partnership”. Partnership is seen as a viable approach to respond to challenges posed by deteriorating quality and practical relevance of higher education in the continent. Since educational quality is influenced by a complex set of factors, the two-day deliberations revolved around five thematic areas: (i) public-private partnership; regional/international cooperation, and the role of the diaspora in African higher education; (ii) equity, accessibility, and affordability of private higher education in Africa; (iii) quality and relevance of private higher education; life-long learning; and teacher development in African higher education systems; (iv) the role of research; ICT, science, technology, and innovation in regional integration; and (v) academic mobility, academic integrity; skills portability; youth employment; and migration studies in African higher education institutions.

Accordingly, almost all the presentations attempted to address the critical gaps in African higher education systems that have implications for quality and relevance of contemporary skills and know-how to the problems facing African society. Some of the prominent scholars who spoke at the high-level panel and plenary sessions of the conference included: H.E. Dr Samuel Kifle, State Minister, in charge of Higher Education at the Federal Ministry of Education of Ethiopia; Professor Damtew Teferra of Kwazulu Natal University, who is also founder and leader of the International Network African Higher Education; Associate Professor Wondwosen Tamrat, founder and President of St. Mary’s University; Dr Eva Egron-Polak, Executive Director of the International Association of Universities; Professor Jegede Olugbemiro, Former Secretary General of the Association of African Universities; Dr. Teshome Yizengaw Alemneh, Associate Vice President for International Research and Development at Indiana University, USA; Dr Laura Rumbley, Associate Director, Center for International Higher Education, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, USA; Dr. Beatrice Njenga, Education Division Head at the African Union Commission; Dr. Yumiko Yokozeki, Director of International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa; and Dr Ronald Bisaso, Makerere University, Uganda.

“Unless universities strive to fully make use of Intra-Africa knowledge and skills exchange and put in place a viable public-private partnership, it is hardly possible, by government efforts alone, to meet the Sustainable Development Goals”, said H.E. Dr Samuel Kifle, Higher Education State Minister of Ethiopia, in his opening remarks. Dr Eva Egron-Polak, Executive Director, in a recorded message, emphasized the need to ensure synergy among all stakeholders towards enhancing public-private partnership in higher education institutions. Prof Damtew Tefera, in his keynote address, underlined the importance of transcending the mere notion of partnership and focusing on the public-private nexus between the two inseparable entities since both need to strive for the development of quality higher in Africa. In a welcoming statement, the Founder and President of St. Mary’s University, Wondwosen Tamrat (Assoc. Prof), noted that the paucity of empirical research on the various aspects and manifestations of this sector still reminded us of the need for continuing our joint efforts in building the knowledge base about private higher education in Africa.

More than 30 research and policy-oriented papers and key-note addresses were presented in both plenary and breakout sessions. A number of critical questions were raised and pertinent recommendations suggested on a range of issues revolving around quality, access and relevance of higher education both at the private and public sectors. Among others, it was stressed by most of the participants that the idea of public-private nexus is highly desirable in order to build synergy and achieve quality higher education to meet national, regional and international targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and agenda 2063 of the African Union.

The annual International Conference on Private Higher Education in Africa, initiated by St. Mary’s University fifteen years ago, is today attracting growing interest among a wide-range of stakeholders. Every year, the number of participants, paper presenters and speakers is increasing. During the 15th edition of the Conference, a consensus has been reached to expand further the diversity of the audience as well as key players.

The conference was jointly organized by St. Mary’s University, Association of African Universities, African Union Commission, Intergovernmental Authority on Development; International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa of UNESCO and the Ethiopia Federal Ministry of Education. In addition to these, the International Network of Higher Education in Africa and the Ethiopian Airlines were principal sponsors of the Conference.

At the end of the two-day event, the co-organizers agreed to continue their partnership in organizing the 16th International Conference on Private Higher Education in Africa on 24-25 July 2016 in Addis Ababa. The event will most likely be held at the African Union Conference Center. The Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy has also expressed strong interest to provide support, including the possibility of hosting the Conference should the need arise.

As usual, St. Mary’s University is entrusted with responsibility of coordinating the Conference. In this regard, the University is expected to identify the major theme and subthemes and share these with the co-organizers for feedback at the earliest time possible. The partners also agreed to contribute to the successful convening of the 16th edition and to ensure the international nature of the conference.

By Kebede Kassa (PhD)

Director, Research and Knowledge Management Office, St. Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia