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IUPAC-AAPAC Joint Meeting on Chemistry in the Development of Africa
Durban, Republic of South Africa, 11 July 1998


by John M. Malin, Ph. D.
International Activities Administrator
American Chemical Society

Status of Chemical Education in Africa

The African university environment has changed since the 1960s, a decade described by Dr. B. M. Abegaz as one of hope, euphoria and romanticism. By the 1970s expectations had been somewhat reduced, stung by a wave of military coups and the growing politicization of higher education. In the 1980s disillusionment and decline were the norm. Overcrowding in the universities led to a growing pessimism among students and faculty along with an overall decrease in quality. The 1990s have seen new hope for successful change and transformation of higher education. However, this is accompanied by increased "donor fatigue" among external agencies and nations.

Prof. John Bradley, Chair of IUPAC's Committee on the Teaching of Chemistry, provided a statistical overview of education of Africa. He noted that the population of Africa is 778 million in 1998. It will grow to 930 million by the year 2005. 236 million (36%) of the current African population are of primary and secondary school age (6-17 years). Prof. Bradley added that the adult illiteracy rate in Africa is 40 %, due partly to the fact that public expenditures for education are very low on average, about 6% of the GNP. Nevertheless, numbers of students have increased substantially since 1980 with enrollment ratios in tertiary education currently at 6%, in secondary 32%, and in primary 72%. In natural sciences and engineering, the percent of enrolled students varies according to country between 11% and 34%. The number of science students per 10,000 inhabitants is approximately one-tenth that found in Latin America and one-fiftieth that of the United States.

Prof. Bradley observed that many African university professors must undertake supplementary non-academic jobs to augment meager incomes. There is a chronic shortage of textbooks, virtually all of which must be imported from outside the continent. Laboratories are often cancelled because of a shortage of reagents.

Prof. E.M.R. Kiremire reported on the dire situation facing higher education in Zambia, typical of African countries. Tremendous inflation exacerbated by a lack of government support and political instability have caused serious problems. Prof. Kiremire noted that three hundred lecturers left Zambia during the decade 1980-90 and, unfortunately, for every two professors lost, only one was recruited. The age profile of the scientists remaining behind is not encouraging, he said. Some 40% of the University staff are over 50 years of age.

Prof. Kiremire urged that the educational system must concentrate on student study skills and motivation, conditions of service for teachers, improvement of teaching aids and infrastructure. There is great need for information technology and library development. Journals since 1975 are lacking in Zambia, as are textbooks and, especially, computers. There is need to strengthen basic research and development in Africa to help provide relevance for chemical education. Basic political support with no strings attached needs to be developed for chemical research and education.

Prof. T.T. Mokoena of Botswana reminded the participants that one of the greatest challenges to chemical education in Africa is to make chemistry understandable to the poor. It is extremely important, he said, that the educational system have a clear understanding of the educational environment from which students come and a plan for where the graduates will go.

Prof. Mokoena suggested that undergraduate chemistry programs in Africa suffer from a lack of goals and objectives, overcrowded and authoritarian undergraduate curricula, general scarcity of modern resources, "tunnel vision" caused by undue emphasis on sub-disciplines, too many "drudgery hours" and lack of regular assessments. He urged that African universities and nations do more strategic planning, carried out in a way that strikes a responsive chord among the people. Educational programs, he said, need to be directed toward acceptable goals.

According to Prof. Mokoena, there is a need to provide high-quality, relevant programs with clearly defined aims and objectives. The programs should emphasize mastery of the use of instrumentation, reduce staff and student time spent in rote learning, provide for the needs of majors as well as general interest or pre-professional students. They should especially include project-based teaching and work-experience assignments. There also should be opportunity for distance learners and adults to study chemistry. The structure of the program should prepare students for conventional and applied course options.

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