The Scramble for Equal Education in Africa: A Conversation with Akilagpa Sawyerr, Secretary General of the Association of African Universities
Published on: Oct 17, 2006

Akilagpa Sawyerr is the Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana. He was President of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) (1995-1998), Chair of the Global Development Network (2003-2004), and currently serves on several national and international bodies.

Nicholas Rice: In 1998, the World Bank released a report on the financing and management of higher education that accorded far greater recognition to higher education in developing countries than the developed world had granted it in the two previous decades. What effect did this report have on the development of African universities? Was it a landmark?

Akilagpa Sawyerr: I wouldn’t call it a landmark, because that would suggest a clean-cut “before and after”. It was more a case of recording a process that was already in train, and by recording it, giving a signal to the wider community.  In that sense it marked a change, but to call it a landmark would be too strong.  It was, nevertheless, significant in other ways, especially as it marked the Bank’s acknowledgement of the failure of its earlier policies. 

The stance of the Bank was formulated in the 1980s, basically on the argument that financial returns to tertiary education were poorer than to other levels of education. Many of us in the African higher education community immediately objected on the grounds that the position was shortsighted and economistic, that the case for higher education competencies in our countries did not turn simply on what cost more or what cost less. There was an indispensable role for high-level knowledge and skills, so that the issue was not whether to maintain institutions for providing such competencies, but to what extent, and how to finance them. 

The Bank appears to have realized this, namely, that the management of the economic reforms it was promoting required more than basic education skills.   Instead of going back to the drawing board, however, it sought to boost economic management capacity through such agencies as the Africa Capacity Building Foundation. We argued even then that the narrow objective of improving the management of the economy needed a broader spread of tertiary level competencies to succeed. 

Thus the 1998 report and, even more explicitly, the World Development Report of 2002 represent the Bank coming to terms with the reality that some measure of higher education competence was required even for poor countries. While the case put forward by the Bank in support of the development role of higher education was among the most compelling, I found the suggestion that this reversal of position was the result of new evidence about rate of return really disappointing and technically suspect. Reliance on the “rate of return” argument against our position in the 1980s and in support of it a decade later only obscures the substantive issue, which is that any system of development requires a broad range of skills at all levels of education. It also raised doubts about how fully the Bank has accepted this broader, less economistic view of development.

NR: Let us compare the situation after ’98 with the situation before ’98, when, for example, the World Bank promised the Nigerian government $93.5 million in exchange for raising fees and cutting admissions. Is the World Bank now encouraging universities to raise admissions?

AS: They certainly favour the imposition of tuition fees.

NR: But not reducing admissions?

AS: I do not know if they are pushing one or the other. The issue of admissions is a very political one, and I can see the wisdom of their not wading in too heavily there. My reading of the situation is that the Bank is happier with smaller enrolments and higher tuition fees.

NR: What do you think has actually changed as a result of governments’ attitudes and as a result of the bank’s attitude since ’98?

AS: In my view, the really important change is ideological.  The new position of the Bank has opened the door to others, in particular to our governments, which are better able to satisfy support for higher education. In fairness to our governments, they never really followed the Bank all the way, even in the 1980s and early 1990s. Let me explain. Despite the fact that many governments toed the line of the Bank, by and large they continued to support the universities. The adverse effect on the universities was more the result of the combination of the policy of playing down higher education with the near-universal collapse of the African economies. Altogether, our governments did not do too badly by us, despite what they said. The removal of the old dogma has cleared the way for serious discussion of the real issue, namely, how does a country construct a national education system that encompasses all the levels in a balanced manner?

NR: To what extent is the rise of private universities in Africa gaining the support of governments or getting blocked for ideological reasons, as is supposed to be the case in Zimbabwe?

AS: It’s a mixed picture. There are, on the one hand, cases where private universities face difficulties getting established – South Africa and, until recently, Nigeria come to mind. But by and large the trend seems to be going the other way, in most parts of Africa. Some work I did a few years back showed an explosion of private universities in several African countries. Despite the huge rise in enrolment in most places, the point I made about subject coverage being very limited remains true to this day. There is evidence that some private universities are expanding their coverage even to medical schools.  That, however, is still very much the exception.

NR: What’s the regulation like for the private universities, particularly for medical schools, which require a high standard of certification?

AS: My experience is that the regulations are the same for private universities as for public universities. Take the case of Ghana, which I know best.  The same body, the National Accreditation Board, regulates all universities, public and private, even as the number of private universities is rising steeply. Indeed, there is some concern that some are being set up without their meeting the standard requirements for accreditation. 

As for private medical schools, while there are proposals, I am not aware of any that have been established yet.  Given their nature, approval of such schools will require great care, not only by the regulatory agencies, but also by the professional medical bodies.

NR: How consistent and uncorrupted is the regulatory process at the moment? Are the relevant bodies working with international partners in order to help improve standards?

AS: I cannot speak for the whole continent, but the Ghana example is probably typical. The National Accreditation Board has a mandate to approve every institution and programme. The Board gives a provisional license once the minimum requirements have been met by an applicant.  Full university status can be conferred upon a review three years later. I have not heard of any allegation of corruption or malpractice in relation to the work of the Board.

NR: What do you make of the example of the National Universities Commission in Nigeria, which has reportedly acted as a barrier between the government and the students and has made it difficult for the students to assess what the government is doing to improve the universities?

AS: I do not know much about the specifics of the Nigerian situation.  What I do know is that such an agency can act as a barrier, a filter or a bridge between students and their institution, and between both of them and the government, depending on the composition of the agency, the politics and general conditions of the country.  In the case of Ghana, the National Council for Tertiary Education, on which I served for many years, provides a very significant space for systematic dialogue between government and the institutions.

NR: As far as the longer-lived universities in Africa are concerned, institutions like the Universities of Nigeria and Ibadan that have undergone all the funding cuts and upheavals and still survived – what do you think has been the secret of their success?

AS: The story varies from country to country, institution to institution, but by and large the survival of the leading national institutions reflects the very special positions they occupy in their countries. Despite all the talk about their elitist nature, it is amazing how highly regarded and popular our universities have always been.

I recall travelling up-country in the late 1980s, during my time as Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana. I had to stop in several villages and small towns along the route and be received with ceremony by the head of the village or town – this, at a time when government had shut down my university and when universities were subject to a press campaign of vilification in the official media. This demonstration of the strength of popular, grassroots support for our universities in the farthest reaches of the country was a revelation.  It showed that the public universities reflected, in a very real sense, a broad national constituency.

NR: Why is that?

AS: I suppose everybody hopes that their child or somebody in their village or town will one day go to university. Despite the relatively low intake into our universities, the hope of access is very real.

NR: How has this expectation been generated?

AS: People look up to university education.  Everybody knows of somebody who has gone to university. That is one factor. Another factor has to be the ingenuity of university leadership – improvising, adjusting, and innovating throughout our history. I am often surprised to hear people looking in from the outside, talking about our universities being unchanging, unresponsive and irrelevant. Utter rubbish. They do not know what they are talking about. Whatever the appearances, I am satisfied about the commitment of our universities and their faculty to their countries.  One can question their interpretation of the national interest, and the value of their contribution, but not their commitment to their country.  And the research they do is invariably linked to national or community concerns.  If it were not so, we wouldn’t be here now.

NR: One long-term resource that universities indubitably need to succeed is talent. How are African universities ensuring that they get the most gifted teachers, whether they live at home or abroad?

AS: That is currently one of our major problems.  In earlier years, a university job was one of prestige, so we actually attracted the best minds to work in the universities.  There were scholarship schemes in Ghana and elsewhere to send the top graduates to study abroad and return to join the faculty.  It was very effective until, say, the mid-1970s. Since then, one cannot be so certain.

NR: Is that partly because of the funding cuts to universities at that time in favour of lower-level education?

AS: That was only a part. During the early days much of the funding for scholarships came from outside sources, mainly British, later American, German, Eastern European and others. British support was cut, and other sources dried up as well. This, occurring at the same time as the national financial situation worsened, made it impossible to send people out on anything like the old scale, and few of those that went came back, because the difficult conditions at home.

The result has been extreme difficulty over the past 15 to 20 years in attracting and retaining a top-class academic staff.

NR: Has there been a brain drain abroad?

AS: Yes, of course.

NR: Is that problem increasing?

AS: No. I don’t think it’s any worse now than it has been for years.

NR: Is that because there are fewer scholarships from abroad?

AS: Only partly. To my thinking, the issue is not so much the exodus of talent, as with sorting out such problems as failure of productive employment of the young and the talented at home. Much of the problem will fall away if we could do that.

NR: A few decades ago, organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were investing a lot of money in inter-university collaborations, extra-university centres and university management systems in Africa at a time when the basic infrastructure of the individual universities was not as sound as it could have been and perhaps should have taken priority. What has been done since then to redress that balance?

AS: What has happened now is that those investments have subsided as well, so we are seeing something of a reflux back into the universities. Many of the research centres that were set up outside the universities always retained their university links, at a time when conditions in the universities limited independent research activity. Now that the universities have begun to revive and the funding for independent institutes is drying up, we are seeing the establishment or reestablishment of links with the universities, and that is a very good thing.

NR: How are African higher education institutions finding their own funds at the moment, aside from charging for tuition? How, for instance, has Ghana’s pioneering work in financing universities through affiliated consulting practices proceeded in recent years?

AS: Not too well. I don’t have precise figures, but I gather the income generated from those sources still remains a very small part of the overall revenue of the universities. So I don’t think that has made that much of a difference.

A more successful development has been the introduction, not of tuition charges, but of charges for services – an “academic facilities user fee” – that I gather are bringing in quite considerable revenues. And it seems the fee can be increased without the same political fuss as would attend the introduction of a tuition fee. 

The most significant change in Ghana in decades has followed the establishment of the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund). A few years back, government added an extra 2 percent to the national VAT, to be placed in a special fund for financing major capital works in education. This has financed many major projects in Ghana’s universities – a near-revolution, compared to my time, when the prospect of getting any public funding for such projects as new laboratories, hostels, major ICT infrastructure was next to nil. You were sometimes lucky if you got the government subvention for paying salaries on time!

NR: Is this system operating only in Ghana?

AS: I believe it is being considered elsewhere as well.

NR: And does it apply to private universities, or just to public ones?

AS: This has been a matter of very fierce debate. I am not sure about the latest situation.

NR: Are the private universities therefore maybe a little too eager to get closer to the government?

AS: They are certainly vying for government support through the students’ loans scheme and the GETFund. Absolutely.

NR: Do you think that might create a danger for the diversity of higher education in Ghana?

AS: No, I don’t think so. The privates still have to earn their way on the market - that’s their main driving force. Government help is supplementary, and cannot completely blunt the drive for them to innovate for the market.

NR: Clearly, due to laboratory work, facilities fees are going to fall more heavily on scientists. Are the science students subsidized by revenue from arts fees so they do not have to pay vastly more for their education?

AS: I think they do pay more, but not proportionately more. There is thus an element of subsidy, particularly in the case of medical students.

NR: What kind of technological innovations are generating the most revenue for African universities at the moment?

AS: I’m not sure that’s a major development across the board. There are pockets of that sort of innovation. While virtually all our universities are involved in some measure of technological innovation, especially in the fields of health, engineering and agriculture, I am not aware of spectacular revenue gains as a result.

NR: So it’s more about mastering existing technologies?

AS: Yes, developing and applying them locally. But that is their most important function.

NR: Might the South Korea of a couple of decades ago provide a model of mass technological education in this respect, minus some of the huge government involvement?

AS: But the situations are so different. The South Korean model involved heavy investment not only in science education, but also in industry. Most of our countries are weak in both respects, especially in relation to investment in industry.

NR: What can higher education do to improve that situation? Give as many people as possible a technological education?

AS: Well, that would help. But the problem lies less with the universities, more with a situation on which the bulk of the economy is dependent. Where the major companies and industries are branches of foreign companies, the market for original research is very limited. Such entities do not have to innovate in Ghana, as they have access to advanced ideas and technologies developed by the parent companies, in contrast to South Korea, where major industries are involved in local research and development for satisfying the local market as well as for export manufacturing.

NR: Is there a country in Africa where you feel there is currently a model system of technological education?

AS: South Africa is a leader, but I am not sure it can serve as a model. Its history is so peculiar, and its politics are so different, that one cannot expect to replicate that easily elsewhere.

NR: What is it about the South African model that makes it so different?

AS: A long history of steady development of the few top public universities - well-endowed, well-resourced, with a long history of high level work - privileged under the apartheid system.

NR: It doesn’t sound particularly equitable.

AS: No, it was totally inequitable, but it succeeded in creating top-class universities at the upper end, clearly at the expense of the vast majority of people and of institutions. Who wants to replicate that?  

NR: How are fast-developing economies like South Africa accommodating the need for equality? Are black and white students represented proportionally?

AS: That is a matter of some controversy. According to figures I have seen, the number of black people in the top, historically white universities has gone up. But the nature of the institutions has not changed much, so the black students have to make very severe adjustments, with consequences for their learning experience and completion rate.  

Again, from what I gather, the increase in black enrolment in those institutions is occurring at the expense of the historically black universities. The best students are moving away from the latter institutions. Thus, the colour composition of the enrolment at the top universities may be changing, but the reality of inequity remains, and it’s hard to see how it can be otherwise.

NR: The various mergers between South African higher education institutions at different levels of achievement have been criticized in some quarters as costly and detrimental to the quality of the education involved. What do you make of that aspect of the situation?

AS: I don’t know enough to speak with confidence on the subject. I have friends on both sides of the argument, and can only say that the matter is extremely controversial, and the jury is still out on the cost-benefit analysis.

NR: Is there not a danger then of educating people insufficiently? For instance, in Nigeria the social perception of the value of a university education is apparently greater than its economic return to graduate jobseekers.

AS: Indeed. But that brings up another question. I do not buy the direct jobs-university linkage. I do not assess a university’s success on the basis of economic rates of return. Obviously, people expect to get jobs after graduation. But that cannot be the primary concern of a university person. The primary concern is to train the minds of their students, so they can turn their hands to a variety of tasks, and learn on the job. It is up to industry to “customize” their employees. This is a point that needs to be taken seriously. I see colleagues get so anxious to “cater for the market” that they tend to dumb down what they do. I am sure the market doesn’t want dumbed-down graduates!

A group of African Vice-Chancellors did a study tour of Brazil in 1988 or 1989, where, to our surprise, leaders of industry insisted that they were less interested in the universities turning out engineers and other technical specialists than in their turning out sound scientists with the capacity to learn and benefit from on-the-job development, which industry itself was best placed to provide, “because our needs change so rapidly.”

NR: Because technologies become obsolete faster and faster?

AS: Exactly. But that is not always appreciated by university leadership in Africa.

NR: But at the same time, if you’re going to increase the financing for higher education and charge tuition fees, you need to be able to give some guarantee to students that they will have a job at the end of it, if only to repay any loans they may have.

AS: Of course.

NR: How are student loan schemes progressing in Africa?

AS: By all accounts, they haven’t worked too well. I thought the Ghana scheme was very well designed, and wrote positively about it. The whole idea was to link loan repayments to the premium payments under the national insurance scheme after graduation and employment, with the result that the maturity of insurance was deferred by a few years – making repayments almost painless.

NR: So you have to retire a few years later.

AS: Yes. The original idea was to create a revolving fund into which repayments were made and from which further loans were made. It didn’t work partly because there wasn’t enough repayment, and partly because there was a huge expansion in student numbers beyond what was originally planned for. The numbers went up so rapidly, and the repayments were so inadequate that the loan fund couldn’t meet the demand on it, nor was government prepared to top it up as it had done at the start of the scheme.

NR: Did the calculation take mortality into account?

AS: It did, but the enrolment explosion combined with the low repayment rate blew a big hole in the fundamental assumptions underlying the whole scheme.

NR: How many African students are crossing national borders to study due to factors like fees?

AS: I have no solid information on that. I know quite a number are going to South Africa. But, interestingly, many are coming to Ghana as well, manly because of the relative stability of the Ghanaian system. There is a large number of students from Nigeria, for instance.

One of the innovations that have occurred has been the introduction of a foreign student quota, which accommodates students paying full-cost fees, over and above the number of Ghanaian students covered by government subvention. The best-known case is that of Makerere University [in Uganda], where “private” students outnumber government-supported students by over four to one, which is a little bizarre.

NR: Are the charges supported by a sufficiently equitable loan scheme?

AS: Apparently not. There are also some pretty gruesome stories about the effects on teaching quality as well. The other problem that needs careful consideration is the incredible explosion in enrolments across the board.

NR: What came of the attempts to reduce enrolment in the early ‘Nineties, when the World Bank offered African governments huge incentives to do so?

AS: The numbers have gone up again, through the roof, to levels that are quite obviously unsustainable.

NR: What needs to be done? Is the World Bank going to revert to its previous attitude?

AS: I don’t know that the World Bank has much say in this. The topic is really a national one. The crisis has just taken everyone by surprise because it is so much worse than we feared. We have students living eight to a room meant for two, libraries where the desk space is oversubscribed by an order of five or ten, where students do their homework under street lights, where classroom space is so limited that, in some instances, students have to listen to lectures from outside, through the window – believe me, I’m not making this up! It’s just not working.

NR: Are there are any basic mechanisms to resolve this that have worked in the past?

AS: Diversification is not the panacea was considered in the early 1990s. But the truth is that, there are avenues other than universities for secondary school graduates. There are polytechnics, vocational and trade schools that ought to be encouraged and properly valued. Yet for almost everyone now, the only way forward seems to be through university. Everyone thinks that going to university is the only way to get a good job. While that is largely illusory, it still contributes to the pressure on university places.

We need to improve our polytechnics and make them entities in themselves so that polytechnic graduates can be assured of decent jobs and appropriate remuneration and respect.

NR: What do you think of the British solution, which has been to convert all polytechnics into universities?

AS: No, I do not think that would be appropriate. I think it is better to provide alternatives to the university. It would be great if everyone who completed secondary school and wanted to could go to university – why not?

Unfortunately, that is not feasible. The idea of massification is attractive and, in the long run, is what we should be aiming at. But in a situation of such limited resources, limited markets and limited high-calibre jobs, to massify is to create a problem on two levels at least. On one level you produce poor-quality graduates, at the same time, you frustrate them because there are no jobs for them. I don’t mean jobs in the sense of just employment, but even remunerative self-employment.

It’s a very hard choice, because I am all about open access. It is just that, with our limited resources, I don’t see how it could be done without dumbing down so badly that you end up with third-class graduates across the board. I think we need face the fact that we have to limit numbers and dispense world-class education, at least in our top universities, but do so in a way that integrates graduates sufficiently in the system so they contribute to community upliftment.

NR: How do you ensure that happens?

AS: I have no easy answer, but I know that is the task.

NR: What do you think of introducing a system of contracts aimed to support students through university in exchange for their services after they graduate, such as the one the government has maintained for many years in Botswana?

AS: It depends. There is a global market for high-level skills, and I’m not sure whether there’s anything one can do to stop mobility entirely. A certain measure of “wastage” is inevitable. What needs to happen is to create the best possible conditions to retain our graduates, and to use those that remain as effectively as possible. A further point is that, in my experience, all those who leave their countries remain keen to contribute to development at home in some manner. Using this phenomenon to build institutional partnerships is an area that’s been relatively unexplored.

NR: But isn’t that going to exacerbate the situation if the people who leave set up partnerships and scholarships that originate from abroad and give people further reasons to leave?

AS: No, not the way I see it, once you make allowance for a certain amount of wastage. Some will “escape” abroad, no matter what you do, but most will stay.

NR: So you have to give them a quick incentive after university to stay.

AS: Precisely. You need to demonstrate that no one has to leave the country to gain the benefits of working with the outside. It’s not easily done, but is possible.

NR: You would need more foreign investment, I take it.

AS: The British government has recently announced two grants schemes, one for funding linkages between English and African universities, the other to help strengthen the capacity of the African continental and sub-regional university bodies to support national development work. Properly used, schemes like these foster partnerships that do not create a brain drain to other countries, because they provide enough of the incentives locally.

NR: Is the idea to help build a workforce within the country that is more attractive to foreign investment?

AS: Indirectly.

NR: How is that kind of process going in Nigeria, given all the foreign investment in the country’s oil?

AS: The problem with situations like the Nigerian one is that the extractive industries are not big employers, so from my reading of the economics of investment, the capital-labour ratio is very unfavourable for employment. So, while they do create employment for university graduates, this is nowhere near enough, given the amounts invested.

NR: What about the technological sector?

AS: That depends upon the extent to which oil production is integrated backwards and forwards into the rest of the local economy. The degree of integration determines the extent of technological development that results.

Let’s look at another aspect of the links between university education and the world of work. In some tracer studies we did in the 1990s we tracked university graduates from ten universities in seven African countries. The results were quite striking. For one, the assumptions one had about which graduates were most easily employable did not stand up. Though graduates had difficulty in securing jobs, this did not depend on discipline. Historians, archaeologist and philosophers appeared to have no more difficulty than accountants. It was completely counter-intuitive.

NR: This must have supported your ambivalence about whether certain areas of education have a higher economic value than others.

AS: Let me give you my favourite story about this. I was part of a 20-person team selected from all over the world to evaluate the programmes of the World Food Programme. At our first meeting in Rome I asked, out of curiosity, how many of us in the room had any training in agronomy, food science, food economics. To our utter amazement, none of us did. The nearest was a management consultant, who had done similar evaluations. I was a lawyer, the head of the team was an actuarian – all had disciplinary backgrounds that you would not have associated with evaluating emergency food relief programmes. I am certain a similar story could be told by every high-level consultant. Here I am, talking about higher education and the political economy of higher education. I have worked on issues of trade and investment. Yet I have never had a day’s formal study in either education or economics.

NR: Do you think this intersection of disciplines is going to be important to the future of African education?

AS: Yes, I do. A good education is a good thing in itself, as well as meeting a vital social need. In the current situation, where everything is so scientific, where knowledge in all spheres has become so interrelated, we have got to go back to the old scholarship, where the philosopher was a mathematician and a biologist at the same time.

NR: We’ve got to go back to The Republic?

AS: Exactly, because the way in which knowledge is constructed now, you can no longer just talk about “my discipline”. You do need a discipline, yes, but you have to come to your discipline with a broader perspective than you did forty years ago.

The goal of public university education should be to reflect this reality to a greater extent in their curriculum.

NR: Would you advocate for a US model, where you start with a broad university education and then major only later?

AS: I must say, I have always admired the American university system for that reason, that they have retained the notion of breadth probably better than most. There already instances of that in Africa. When I was on the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana, we introduced a B.A. (Law) degree, not to qualify students as practising lawyers, but to broaden access to legal principles and ways of thinking to graduates from in all areas of study.

NR: And what about getting people from all areas of the country?

AS: I recall my secondary school experience, when we had colleagues from all parts of the country, and all social backgrounds, who went on to university. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the situation had altered to the extent that, unless you came from a particular background, you had reduced chances of getting to university. Part of the reason was the proliferation of private schools at the primary and secondary level, which provided better facilities than the public schools. Because they were located mostly in the urban areas and charged fees that not all could afford, they had the effect of stratifying by geographic location and income status. This in effect tended to screen out persons from rural or poor urban backgrounds. Today if you do not pass through a good private secondary school, your chance of getting into the prestigious public universities is limited. Recent studies done in Ghana showed that a mere handful of secondary schools that provided the bulk of the people enrolled in the universities.

NR: In some parts of South America and Asia, there’s a tendency for students who can afford a private education to get into prestigious public universities, where their tuition is then free, as opposed to the public school students, who often end up in less prestigious private universities where they have to pay for their education in full. Is there a similar problem in Africa?

AS: Yes, that is the situation I have just described for Ghana. To deal with the situation at the university level some new thinking has emerged. It starts from the assumption that if you selected people at random from all parts of the country and from the different social groups, there is no reason why one group should be innately more suited to university education than any other – the selection will yield idiots and geniuses in the same ratio. Just because a person happens to go to school in some poor community does not mean that she or he is not fit for university for that reason alone. Secondly, we know that students with worse qualifications from disadvantaged backgrounds can catch up quite quickly under proper conditions. Putting those two notions together, it has been proposed that schools should be grouped into two categories – the well-endowed and the not-so-well-endowed (there are more elegant terms for them). The idea is to reserve a proportion (one-third) of all places for the top 10% of students from the latter category of schools in the deprived regions of the country. Something like that is already under test in at least one of the public universities in Ghana. I think it’s a superb idea.

NR: And the scheme is equitable from a gender perspective as well?

AS: Yes.

NR: What is the AAU doing to try to promote gender equity across Africa?

AS: We haven’t done too well in the past, I must confess. We talk about it, we’ve done quite a bit, but nowhere near enough. We are keen to do something, but we don’t know quite what it is. We’ve done studies that show the reality of the gender problem, and we’ve put together a policy package. We’ve also run a management training program for university vice-chancellors, and we’ve inserted a module into it for gender sensitisation, because we believe that if the vice-chancellor is aware, it helps. People can come up to them for help, they can issue directives, they can put pressure where it belongs, they become more receptive to the issues. We’ve also just completed a research project on gender and institutional culture within African universities. This is really not much to talk about at all.

Much of our work is a matter of funding. If we don’t get funding, we can’t do anything. We’ve never had any money for gender, believe it or not, up until now. In terms of what can be, or what is being done, I remember I began to innovate with the idea of admitting affirmative action, of allowing extra points for gender in the admissions process. I introduced it as vice-chancellor, and withdrew it immediately, but I remember that when I proposed it, the women on the faculty were the biggest opponents. They were outraged. But I gather it’s gone through now.

NR: Clearly there are a number of cultural elements involved. You have some African societies that are a lot more patriarchal than others, some whose religious beliefs tend not to favour female empowerment. How do you overcome these overarching trends?

AS: That is what we are studying at the moment. Frankly, I think the root of the problem is in the secondary schools and in the primary schools, and we cannot do that kind of work. Our goal is to clarify the issues and push the debate. And as we create stronger women, they can then become the leaders of the campaign.

NR: In terms of some of the more conservative Islamic cultures in Africa, for instance, how do you persuade women that they are no less devout if they attend university? Surely your example of university as a social benefit must arise in that case, even if not all of the women go on to work? Is that a point you’re keen to press home?

AS: Absolutely. As you know, it’s a debate about feelings and faith and so on, and you can’t necessarily persuade them by argument only, but that’s all we have, we can’t legislate.

By and large, my sense of it is that battle has been joined. It’s not all gloom. There is a battle on, led by the women themselves, to begin with. The question is how we support them. And we don’t know what to do.

NR: What role can Ellen Johnson Sirleaf play, given not only her status as Africa’s first female head of state but also her experience at institutions such as the World Bank?

AS: A big one. It’s a pity that she’s so busy with her job at home that she hasn’t got time for anybody else, but the symbolic value is tremendous. She wrote something some time ago on higher education, which was very progressive. Her election does present an occasion for very positive things, but the handicaps are so huge in Liberia, because if she fails, then it would just reinforce all the negative prejudices. It’s a huge gamble, but I think it will work because she is quite strong and there is a lot of support for the experiment. She has my prayers - well, I don’t pray, but if I did, she’d have them.