Universal education: how to move from talk to action | This is Africa

Politics and Society

Universal education: how to move from talk to action

With the recently concluded 27th African Union Assembly themed around human rights, Richard Munang and Robert Mgendi argue that universal access to education is a crucial step towards empowering citizens on the continent.



‘Brothers love each other when they are equally rich’. This age-old African proverb is a lesson in equal opportunity, the basis of human rights everywhere. Human rights are a critical priority area for the continent. In recognition of this, the recently concluded 27th African Union (AU) Assembly was themed around human rights. Under international law, human rights norms include the right to life and security, right to food, right to subsistence and the right to health. Achieving these, however, requires putting in place measures that are sometimes neglected in ongoing discussions.

Education – an enabler to the fulfilment of rights

Education is not only a good in itself, but also an enabling right that permits the exercise of other fundamental rights. Education empowers communities socio-economically, permitting them to better exercise other fundamental rights. The first aspiration of the AU Agenda 2063 envisions a ‘prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.’ To accomplish this noble aspiration, the AU Agenda 2063 underscores education and a skills revolution as paramount.

While learning to read and write is a fundamental step to empowerment, 38% of African adults, or 153 million people, are illiterate. Africa is the only continent where over 50% of parents are not able to help their children with homework due to illiteracy. Electricity access in primary schools is at 35% and in some countries, 80% of primary schools have no electricity. This hinders learning for most pupils as they are denied light to study. This not only affects their performance in school but also hampers their chances later in life, perpetuating the vicious cycle of denied rights. UNESCO estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will need to invest up to US$26 billion annually to achieve universal education by 2020. This excludes critical investments to electrify marginalised rural areas and achieve universal access to electricity. For this, the region needs to invest up to US$55 billion annually until 2030.


Bridging the resource gap – contribution of environmental assets

Despite the high cost of universal education, Africa has the necessary resources to meet the challenge. Sustainably harnessing the continent’s environmental assets, its natural capital, could potentially unlock resources towards financing education, energy access and other crucial enablers of fundamental human rights – the basis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainably harnessing Africa’s natural capital was in fact the key agenda at the sixth special session of the Africa Ministerial Conference of the Environment (AMCEN).

Among other things, AMCEN recognised sustainable agro-industrialisation as capable of unlocking billions of dollars which, in turn, could be plowed into financing education and the achievement of other priority rights such as health care and the right to food. Africa holds 65% of the world’s arable land and 10% of internal renewable fresh-water sources. If it is optimised, the agricultural sector – worth an estimated US$1 trillion by 2030 – has the potential to create as many as 17 million jobs annually.

Beyond financing – an education tailored for rights in Africa

Africa’s education policies need to be reformed and centered on solving the continent’s challenges, while technically benchmarking against global best practices. Education should target the solving of developmental challenges and curriculums should equip students to do so.


There is also a need to invest in compulsory quality universal education through the following measures:

Staff rationalisation policies: In promoting greater equity, there is a need to ensure all institutions of learning are equally staffed with adequately trained manpower. Policies entrenching rationalisation practices such as scheduled periodic country wide staff audits will go a long way in correcting staffing imbalances and ensuring that students are served equitably. Lessons from South Africa indicate that a critical success factor of rationalisation programmes is the budgetary allocation for the hiring of new staff whenever deficits are revealed by the exercise.

Education finance reform: National governments and the private sector should come up with innovative scholarship and grant policies that ensure financing is targeting programmes that reflect the greatest developmental and rights needs for their countries. By attracting students to these programmes and monitoring their development, this will ensure adequate and skilled manpower to confront country-specific challenges. Private-sector participation through the offering of corporate scholarships fosters the sustainability of such initiatives.

Policies restructuring tertiary institutions’ research and capacity building: There is also a need for policies that promote continuous improvement in the quality of training and research. Institutions of higher learning should institute policies that promote the continuous capacity building of the academic staff. Examples include policies offering periodic grants for fellowships to top universities across the globe, policies to enhance institutional collaborations with benchmarked global universities, policies enabling partnerships with the government, private sector, NGOs, and with other research-oriented academic institutions to address specific rights challenges.



The enjoyment of fundamental rights in Africa is within reach. Sustainably harnessing the continent’s environmental assets contributes directly and indirectly towards the achievement of multiple rights. Recalibrating and reforming the continent’s education sector is the crucial enabler to creating a ‘viscous cycle’ of rights enjoyment in Africa.

Dr Richard Munang is Africa Climate Change & Development Policy Expert. He tweets as @RichardMunang

Mr Robert Mgendi is the Adaptation Policy Expert

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which he is affiliated.


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