Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why the University Education Still Excites Many People Today?

By John A. Akec

With more than 30 universities in Sudan and with talk of declining academic standards and rising level of unemployment amongst university graduates in our country, one is led to believe that university education has lost its glitter and is now next to worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Recently, I was invited to give a keynote speech at an occasion to celebrate the admission of new students from my county to various Sudanese universities. The celebration was organized by my county’s university students association. I decided to steer clear of the usual political stuff that seems to preoccupy most of us at every gathering these days: the future of CPA, elections’ laws, the ICC’s ruling, Darfur, insecurity in the South Sudan, the LRA, the land grabbing in Equatoria by ‘outsiders’, and the like.

Instead, I decided to focus our minds on what it means for these young men and women to be admitted to university. This is the basis of my article.

University Education and Its Importance
The first question I asked myself was why is university education important? Many educationalists argue that university education is the critical parameter in the well being and success of an individual in today’s society. As one academic puts it: "It gives the man [and woman, my italics] the clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, eloquence in expressing them, and force in urging them."

Another academic succinctly expressed the purpose of university education saying: "the aim of university education is to produce a human being who have heart for the people and environment, create a just society, disseminate knowledge, and improve the quality of life."

A UK secondary school head once told parents that: "A-level results determine student’s life expectancy." By that he meant those who go to university are more likely to enjoy a higher standard of living, and hence, a longer life expectancy than those who don’t. In fact, a government funded research in the UK a few years ago revealed that, on average, a graduate earns in a lifetime 400 times more than those who did not go to the university.

A Quick Historical Glance at the Origin of University Education
So intrigued with the exciting outcomes of being a university graduate that we, as students, graduates, and parents, are also bound to ask further questions in order to further and deepen our understanding about university education: What is a university after all? When and where did the idea of university originate? Where are world’s best universities located?

A modern definition of a university is that of an institution that continuously teaches and awards degrees in advanced studies. Another definition describes university as a community of teachers and scholars.

The world’s oldest university that has been continuously operating and granting degrees is University of Karaouine in Morocco. It was established in 858. The first university to be founded in Western world is the University of Bologna in Italy that opened in 1088. The universities of Paris in France (founded in 1150), Oxford (in 1167) and Cambridge in England (in 1209), Salamanca in Spain (in 1218), and Padua in Italy (in 1222) followed next.

In fact, if the definition of university is broadened to include those that offered advanced studies but fell short of offering degrees, Nanjing University in China would be the oldest world’s university as it was established in 285 but did award degrees until many centuries later. All that Nanjing University did before becoming a full-fledged university in modern sense of the word was help students prepare for exams after which those who passed had their names entered into the scholar’s gentry.

By 1500, many European countries had universities established and from there on universities began to spread all over the world. The oldest Sudanese university is Khartoum which was founded in 1902 as Gordon Memorial College. Today, there are more than 30 public and private universities in Sudan.

Some Facts about Today’s Universities Ranking
The THE-QS World Universities Ranking 2008 placed Harvard at the first place of top 10 world’s universities. Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, California Institute of Technology, Imperial College, University College London, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia followed in that order. A closer look at the list reveals that only two countries, namely the US and UK dominated the top 10 between them, compared top 100 where 13 different countries were represented. On the other hand, 33 countries participated in top 200 universities.

Back to Africa, the top 10 are dominated by Egypt (6 universities) and South Africa (4 universities) with following ranking order: Cairo University, Ain Ashams, Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal, Mansoura, German University in Cairo, Helwan, and Asiut.

Amongst the top 100 African universities that are represented, University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) came in 12th place, Makerere (Uganda) ranks 17th, Ilorin (Nigeria) in 32nd place, University of Zimbabwe in 47th place, University of Addis Ababa in 58th place. Three Sudanese universities made it into the list, and they are: University of Khartoum in 34th place, Sudan University of Science and Technology in 42nd place, and Ahfad University for Women in 61st place.

Overall, 24 African countries are represented in the list of top 100 African universities. The participation is distributed as follows: Egypt (24 universities), Algeria (16), South Africa (15), Morocco (7), Kenya (6), Nigeria (5 ), Tunisia (4), Sudan (3), Ghana (2), Tanzania (2), Mauritius (2), Namibia (2), Uganda (1), Botswana (1), Ethiopia (1), Mozambique (1), Senegal (1), Reunion (1), Zimbabwe (1), Burkina Faso (1), Madagascar (1), Zambia (1), Libya (1), and Rwanda (1).

It is to be noted that North Africa alone is represented by 52 universities (distributed among 5 countries), while 19 African countries are represented by 48 universities. All North African countries have been represented. Many sub-Saharan Africa countries did not feature.

What’s more, a look at the GDP distribution in those two regions of Africa will definitely suggest a link to the quality and quantity of their universities as can be said about countries enlisted in top 100 African universities. Hence, this simple analysis does confirm the well sang fact about the African "divide", with sub-Sahara Africa, as usual, trailing behind North Africa in education as well as in other prosperity indicators.

It is also a stark warning to those finance and economic planning ministers of the Sub-Sahara African nations that assign low priority to research and education in their annual budget allocation. Hence, any finance minister who would like to get the balance of payment right without investing in research and educational institutions has forgotten his walking stick. He or she is not going to get anywhere close to the economic goals they are dreaming about anytime soon.

The Challenges Facing the University Education in the New Millennium
The new millennium whose economy is being shaped by new technologies, new means of communications, and new social and economic phenomena such as the Internet, genetic engineering, globalization, the spread of consumerism to new corners of the world, the rise of China and India as new global economic super powers, the threat to Earth’s environment and resources in the form of global warming and dwindling energy and drinking water resources; all put great challenges on today’s universities to equip these young men and women who make it to their gates, with skills, attitudes, and work cultures that will enable them to succeed in the new world they will be joining after graduation.

The new world in which these young men and women will be part of (and is already here) goes by many names: electronic or e-age, e-economy, the knowledge economy, or information society. In this new world, there will few jobs-for-life and many of new graduates will have to operate as independent self-employed knowledge workers or fleas as they are called by the British social thinker, Charles Handy in his book The Elephant and the Flea: Looking Backward to the Future (Hutchinson, London 2001). In e-economy and globalization, the borders between nation states will get blurry, according to Handy and others, paving way to free flow of skilled workforce, talents, intellectual property, and capital. Many graduates will face stiff competition at home from roaming global knowledge workforce that is highly skilled, flexible, and willing to do the jobs they will be aiming for, faster, better, and at lower cost.

That means the new breed of university students will have to be informed about, and get to grip with these new scientific, technological, social, economic, and environmental realities and concerns. The needed skills and knowledge will not be acquired solely by attending lectures or going to the library, but also by being aware of the burning issues of the day that are facing the wider society beyond the safety of lecture hall and campus; and by sharpening their personal, interpersonal, team, and communication skills; and by discovering their hidden talents through the pursuit of hobbies such as sport, music, art, writing, and debating, among others. By so doing, many of them will survive, and survive they will, successfully to be sure.


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