The responsibility to transform access to opportunity for students in Africa rests upon the shoulders of its higher education institutions, writes Dr Jonathan Louw, and education must be developed to be as impactful as possible for wider society.

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that increasingly characterise our world are creating unprecedented challenges and opportunities for young people everywhere on Earth. In Africa, with the largest youth population on the planet, the stakes could not be higher. How we educate for impact in a turbulent world will define not just the careers of our students, but the prospects for their families and the development trajectories of their societies.

Educating for impact is not just about instilling detailed technical knowledge and building practical new skills, although both are critical. It means learning must be anchored in core values. There are millions of bright young people across the continent who will not be able to pursue tertiary education – not through lack of ambition or ability but through lack of access. It means that the students who do go to university have a responsibility to make their education matter, to contribute to solving the development challenges that limit human potential and to accelerating progress in a way which is inclusive and sustainable.

This in turn, confers great responsibility on the institutions. The role of the education sector is to prepare the millions of young Africans entering the job market every year to feel motivated, not overwhelmed, by the urgent need to understand and engage with the challenges around them. We need to ensure young people feel confident embracing and exploring technology and innovation to design solutions that work in the local context. The breath-taking speed of the vaccinations developed in response to the COVID pandemic demonstrated the value to humanity in strengthening the linkages between scientific research and business to solve challenges at scale. What more could be achieved by encouraging researchers and business leaders to co-create in other areas?

Another positive aspect of the COVID legacy is the acceleration of digital transformation. In the education sector, distance and online learning are playing a significant role in dismantling the barriers to accessing quality learning opportunities. The pandemic forced many institutions who were considering introducing a blended offer to accelerate that move and thousands of students have benefitted from uninterrupted learning as a result.

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Beyond education, Africa is home to some of the most exciting tech businesses in the world, working on solutions to issues from food security to financial inclusion, public health and clean energy. Educating young people in a way that builds the mindset and skills to start and scale purpose-led businesses will be a key driver in strengthening the linkages between academia and the workforce, ensuring our graduates are future-facing, resilient and confident in their ability to make a difference in a highly competitive job market.

How do we do this? Reimagining higher education also means focusing on the student experience, enhancing diversity and inclusion, strengthening delivery channels and maintaining a balanced value proposition for students amidst a global cost of living increase. Universities must urgently adapt to integrate and harness technology to improve student outcomes and employability, ensure effective governance, and embed innovation and research.

When Honoris United Universities convened the collective expertise of its first member institutions back in 2017, we set out with a singular purpose, to educate for impact. Now, as the first and largest network of higher education institutions in Africa, with over 61,000 students across 32 cities, we are reaffirming our mission by developing disruptive, tailor-made academic models designed to address these global challenges.

Five years after we established Honoris, we wanted to reflect on our founding mission by producing an inaugural impact report, which explores six core pillars of progress: Network, Learning, Innovation, Employability, Community and Sustainability. The report finds that the work of Honoris has transformed more than 770,000 lives over the last five years and contributes to 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Looking ahead to the next five years, we have set a target to transform 1.5million lives by 2027. Aligned to the principles of pan-African collaboration reflected in the roll-out of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the African Union Agenda 2063, Honoris' unique concept of collaborative intelligence equips students with cultural agility, a mobile mindset and the requisite skills to thrive in today's fast-paced, demanding and increasingly digitised labour and start-up markets.

Higher education is undergoing a fundamental reorganization worldwide and employability-focused education is a priority. Learning must be linked to outcomes: for the families who invest in sending their children to university and for the societies which depend on graduates applying their skills and knowledge in ways that will yield meaningful progress for the many and not the few. By focusing on education for impact, higher education in Africa can become a more proactive and strategic partner in solution-building.

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