Higher Education in Angola is not in Safe Hands

Since Angola’s civil war ended in 2002, the overall number of students in higher education has risen more than tenfold to over 140,000 but have educational standards kept pace? Some suggest they have not; that quantity should not be confused with quality.

No less a figure than General João Lourenço, the MPLA Vice-President and Defence Minister, said in a speech to the academic community this month that institutions of higher education should not exist just to train the masses. He referred openly to the need for higher quality in Angola’s institutions of higher education and added that merit should be rewarded.

It is remarkable that João Lourenço chose to highlight the concept of merit when this has not been high on the list of attributes required for appointments under José Eduardo dos Santos’s regime. Up to now nepotism, affinity and servile obedience have been more likely to secure an academic position. (No less remarkable is the fact that General Lourenço seems to have taken on the Social Affairs role, usually reserved for the portfolio of the Vice-President, Manuel Vicente.)

At the same event, the chancellor of the Agostinho Neto University (UAN) admitted that 58 percent of the current student body had been admitted in spite of having failing grades. The chancellor complained that they were ill-prepared and faced immense difficulties in making the transition from secondary to post-secondary education.

Clearly both General Lourenço and the UAN chancellor recognize that current standards in Angolan institutions of higher education are too low and are not based on merit. However, pointing the finger of blame at inadequate secondary education for this lamentable state of affairs is as futile as it is convenient. As ever, it’s someone else’s fault and not – ever – the responsibility of the university chiefs. Let’s be clear: this will not solve the problem.

The universities have to acknowledge their own failings. We are all aware of the lack of academic rigour at our post-secondary institutions. Let’s face it: they don’t even have a professional academic structure. Take for example the appointment of Dean of the Law Faculty at one of Angola’s largest private universities. The position was offered to a young graduate who only two years earlier had held the lowly role of teaching assistant at a university in Portugal. His main qualification for the role was only that he was a member of the Angolan parliament.

This isn’t to say that the young graduate didn’t have the attributes or potential to succeed in the long term. But he was thrown straight into the top job before developing the skills and expertise along the way. Before appointing him to a senior teaching position at the university, far less to the Dean’s role, shouldn’t he have needed to satisfy an appointment committee of his suitability for an academic career? He was simply not ready for that responsibility and in short order the department was in a mess, with the Dean accused of all manner of mis-steps. He was promptly removed.

The case illustrates one of the key problems with Angolan universities, whose senior academic – and administrative – people are ill-prepared for the job they are expected to do. They have insufficient training and/or experience. Some universities were opened before they had a minimally-acceptable academic structure in place. The main administrative and teaching jobs were not awarded on merit, but on the basis of family and/or political connections. To this day there are too few professors who are up to the demands of university-level teaching.

It is pointless to complain about the quality of the students when the teaching staff themselves are no better. Good professors can turn poor students into good ones. The main aim of any university reform should be to ensure the teachers themselves are well prepared. And demanding professional excellence goes hand-in-hand with creating academic career paths with compatible salaries.