Mobilising higher education to fast-track literacy and lifelong learning in sub-Saharan Africa


15 June 2017

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is home to a vibrant youth and adult population with around one-seventh of the world’s population living in the region. Yet, SSA accounts for almost half of all youth with low literacy and more than a quarter of adults with low literacy globally. Clearly, with decades of limited progress in literacy rates and despite claims of renewed commitment and coordinated action across Africa, new, innovative ways of expanding adult literacy and lifelong learning opportunities need to be explored.

‘Agenda 2063’, a strategic framework designed by the African Union (AU) for the socio-economic transformation of the continent, is in place, setting ambitious literacy targets. This action plan also takes into account United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), which seeks to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’, providing targets towards which Africa needs to work. One way of tackling the challenge is to make use of the resources that exist across the region, e.g. in institutions of higher education and distance learning.

Together for greater strategies and progress

‘How do we identify, mobilise and effectively deploy these resources for the common good of literacy and basic skills development?’ This was the main objective of a sub-regional workshop in Nairobi, Kenya organised by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa and the University of Nairobi in collaboration with the UNESCO Abuja Office. The workshop, which took place from 13 to 15 June 2017, brought together education stakeholders, including senior university officials from Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria to discuss and come up with practical recommendations to mobilise higher educational and distance learning resources for increased literacy and sustainable development.

In his keynote address, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice Chancellor and Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, pointed out that despite the many challenges faced by African institutions of higher education, they produce research that is essential for sustainable development. He added that in the various countries of Africa, the research undertaken by universities generates the relevant knowledge and skilled labour capacity the continent needs to address key socio-economic challenges facing SSA.

The workshop brought together some of the most distinguished African minds, enthusiastic to drive the literacy agenda of the continent forward in and beyond their respective countries. After three days of intense deliberations, the participants formulated indicative strategies for mobilising higher education and distance learning assets and capabilities to help accelerate progress towards SDG 4 and Agenda 2063 literacy targets in their respective countries. The key strategic actions outlined in the workshop's outcome document included the following:

  1. Tertiary institutions of learning can design flexible programmes which can help train facilitators of literacy teaching in areas where literacy levels are lowest.
  2. Universities can support the development of implementation capacities of government bodies in charge of adult learning and education.
  3. Universities can provide the much-needed data essential for planning relevant lifelong learning and adult and continuing education.
  4. Higher education institutions can conduct action research on key issues and challenges, for example reasons for the deep and persistent gender disparities.
  5. Universities can lobby and advocate for increased funding for youth and adult literacy.
  6. Universities and distance learning centers could promote and facilitate the use of appropriate information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially mobile technology, in expanding literacy opportunities.

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