BlogBy Samantha Nkirote McKenzie
When studying law, mock trials or moot court competitions are an exciting and challenging way to put the legal theory that you have learnt into practice. In my final year of study towards a Bachelor of Law at a university in Kenya I was lucky enough to participate in a trial competition at The Hague in the Netherlands.
My teammates and I worked hard for months, preparing arguments and counter arguments. We were sure we were ready for whatever the competition - students from 19 universities around the world - had in store for us. However, when we got there it was clear we, and our fellow participants from other universities in Africa, were at a distinct disadvantage. We just hadn't had access to the academic resources, such as the broad range of legal texts and reference books, that the participants from universities in North America, Europe and Australia had.
So when I spoke to Rita Bissoonauth, a senior policy officer at the African Union Commission, at a recent education summit it was encouraging to hear her say that while education remains a major challenge in Africa, African leaders now recognise that improving the state of higher education on the continent is a priority.
In its action plan for the Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015) the AU acknowledged that "Africa entered the millennium with severe education challenges at every level'. In the same plan it also recognised that "education is a critical sector whose performance directly affects and even determines the quality and magnitude of Africa's development".
The First Decade of Education for Africa (1997-2006) attempted to respond to education challenges in Africa by focusing its activities on four key areas: equity and access to basic education; quality, relevance and effectiveness of education; complementary learning modalities; and capacity building.
However, the AU itself concedes that the First Decade of Education for Africa failed to achieve these goals. According to Bissoonauth this was in part because "many of our member states didn't even know about the first decade of education - they had no idea". Further, she said, those that were aware felt no sense of ownership as they hadn't been involved in drawing up the plan.
After a meeting of the African Ministers of Education in April 2005 an action plan for the second decade was drawn up with an expanded focus on, among other things, tertiary education and technical and vocational training.
In 2011 the African Union launched the Pan African University. Put simply, Bissoonauth explained, it is a network of universities and each institute is linked to different centres of excellence in other countries. The idea being not to build new universities but rather to build on the capacity of existing universities; to empower them to teach subjects which are important to the development of Africa.
The key thematic areas of focus for the Pan African University are basic sciences, technology and innovation; life and earth sciences; governance, humanities and social sciences; water and energy sciences; and space sciences.
In late 2012, a few weeks after I spoke to Bissoonauth at the World Innovation Summit for Education, the Jomo Kenyatta Institute of Science and Technology, which hosts the Pan African University Institute of Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation, admitted their first group of postgraduate students from 13 different African countries.
Hopefully, one day students will be able to look back at these recent developments as the start of giving them, and one day their children, a competitive edge with their international peers.