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
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
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Page last modified 15 December 1998.
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