Education is the way to secure Africa’s next generation of great leaders, according to Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership University. He shares his vision for the institution and internationalisation in African higher education as well as why he’s so eager to visit Denmark.

The PIE: Tell me your genesis story, how did ALU start?

FS: ALU is really an outgrowth of other work I have been doing in education for the last 15 years. I grew up all across Africa, I was born in Ghana but I left when I was four, and then every four years of my life I moved to a new country in Africa. That gave me a big passion for the continent and also gave me a perspective across all countries, not just the country I was from.

I came to see that Africa has tremendous potential, but we are being held back by the quality of our leaders. But I didn’t know how we would address this particular issue. I went to college in the States and joined McKinsey for a couple of years and then I went back to business school. While I was there I was reflecting on my experiences on the continent and this question of leadership. I started thinking ‘do we just sit back and hope that Africa gets good leaders by chance or can we find a systematic way to develop it?’.

That is what gave me the idea to start a school to train leaders and use my family’s expertise in education and my early experience in building education ventures be able to have education be the vehicle to solve it.

“I thought ‘why don’t we have world-class universities on the continent that students can go to?”

That’s how I started the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. It’s a two year pre-university program. They do A-levels, they do a special curriculum where we offer entrepreneur leadership and African studies. Over the years that institution has had about 1,000 young people come through it from all across Africa and 80% of those students will go to college in the States. That bothered me. I thought ‘why don’t we have world-class universities on the continent that they can go to?’.

The other thing I was worried about was that we get 1,000 applications to that academy but we can only take 100. I realised we needed to do something at the tertiary level and we needed to do that on a larger scale.

Along the way of building the academy I also started Global Leadership Adventures, which is a summer program which teaches leadership skills to young people all around the world. We started that program with 70 students in Cape Town in 2005 and this year we took 3,000 students across 20 locations in 14 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. So essentially now in establishing ALU, I am bringing the experience of establishing Global Leadership Adventures and opening that in multiple sites around the world and the experience of starting the academy.

The PIE: The curriculum you’ve developed is quite unique. How did that concept begin?

FS: Previously, education was about learning a lot of facts and figures, what I call ‘just in case’ education, in case it becomes relevant to something in your life. And what I really believe is in the 21st century it’s ‘just in time’ education – where you learn how to learn and actually acquire skills that will always endure with you.

We wanted to provide students with that knowledge, character and skills for the 21st century, so we did research with about 150 employers around the world asking them what are the skills they typically find missing in college graduates and identified what we call seven ‘meta-skills’ and these are skills like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, leading yourself, leading others, managing projects etc.

We then mapped out five sub-skills for each of these seven skills and came up with 135 learning outcomes for the foundation core curriculum. We then said every student has to have these skills in their first year.

Then in their second, third or fourth year they are doing something technical like engineering, where they do all that deep intellectual, rigorous work you would see at any other university. Instead of declaring a major, we ask them to declare a mission for their life and then they get to curate their own learning around that problem.

Then they go into mandatory internships for four months, where they are getting to practice what they are learning to solve problems in the real world. So that is how we approach it – aligning education with a purpose. If you can give the students a chance to define their own mission then that would allow them to align their education with a purpose.

The PIE: So your students don’t declare majors?

FS: Traditionally universities have schools that are built in silos, the school of business, school of law, school of engineering, etc. but we think in order to solve the world’s greatest problems you need to adopt a much more interdisciplinary approach. We created our schools around seven grand challenges that Africa is going to face in the next 50 years and seven great opportunities. The challenges are things that if Africa doesn’t address we are going to be in really serious trouble.

Things like urbanisation, there are 800 million people moving to cities in the next four years, how do you prepare for that? So the School of Urbanisation will study architecture, civil engineering, urban planning, how to use technology to build smart cities, etc.

Other big challenges are climate change, infrastructure, healthcare, education, job creation and governance and so these are all interdisciplinary schools where an entire knowledge base and research that needs to be done to solve those problems will come together.

The PIE: Tell me about the income sharing model you have for tuition.  

FS: When we looked at the situation, we realised the four traditional funding models probably wouldn’t work in Africa.  Governments don’t have the funding in Africa, they are cash strapped enough to provide basic primary and secondary education. Most African families can’t afford to pay fees. Private financial institutions, if you look at the US student loan, it has become a noose around peoples’ necks, people are being forced to make wrong careers choices because they have to pay back student loans, it really restricts the freedom of students and we don’t want to go down that route. And then the fourth option of philanthropy might work for a limited set of students but not on the scale we are doing it.

So we decided to try an alternative model, like how they do it in Australia – income sharing arrangements where we will provide finance to students and when they graduate they pay back a share of the income for a defined period. Instead of it being a fixed amount they need to pay with interest you would get from a loan, they commit to paying back a fixed percentage of their income, let’s say 7-10% for 10 years and then they are done. Whether what they pay back covered the amount they got is irrelevant. After 10 years they are done. That gives the students a lot more flexibility and it allows everyone’s repayments to adjust to what they can afford to pay.

Ultimately, we want the students to see it as them contributing towards their education and the next generation’s education. We want to really tie it in to the ethos of the university and get them to see that when they are contributing, they are actually helping the next generation. We are even considering naming a scholarship after every graduate so that when you pay back you know you are funding these two students.

The PIE: How do you plan to go global?  

FS: As much as we are trying to be innovative with ALU we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so there are many great things that universities around the world have done and we want to learn from them.

We want to establish links with the world’s greatest universities, and have faculty exchanges. We hope that we will have faculty from all around the world spending time on our campus, for as short as a week doing a short seminar or for an entire year, rotating through all the time. Especially if they have expertise in some of the grand challenges and some of things we are trying to address.

We also would like to be able to send some of our students to spend time at other universities around the world and to contribute towards student life and intellectual dialogue on those campuses. We would be interested in collaborations with 2+1 or 2 +2 degrees.

We also would be interested in curricula exchanges, because in terms of not reinventing the wheel, we want to bring together great curricula from all around the world from great places, for example, when we designed executive MBA for participants across Africa using online curriculum from Harvard Business School and Wharton.

We have partnered with all these different institutions and it has given our MBA students a world class curriculum. We don’t claim to be the experts in all the fields, we want to collaborate with experts in different fields and bring them all into one place, on one campus and give our students access to this plethora of knowledge that has been developed in other universities around the world.

The PIE: You have a campus in Rwanda and Mauritius, are you planning on opening more campuses?

FS: Our original plan was to open 25 campuses in Africa. There are 52 cities in Africa with a population of more than one million, so we expect to establish ourselves in 25 of these cities. But I wouldn’t rule out opening a campus outside of Africa either.

The PIE:  What does internationalisation of education look like in the African century?

FS: I think it looks like, one, African born institutions becoming some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Because we don’t have the constraints of legacy, a lot of the innovation in education will come out of Africa and some of the world’s greatest universities, by the end of this century, will be African universities that were born in this time of innovation and disruption to higher education.

Another thing I could see is that some of these African universities are opening campuses in other parts of the world. You might have an ALU in Spain or something like that, so I can see that trend happening. I could also see some interesting collaborations happening with global universities and African universities, the innovation that is happening in African universities will be transmitted to more established universities and vice versa. It will take a while but I think that Africa is fertile ground for innovation.

The PIE: Is there a specific African approach to higher education that hasn’t been done by Europeans, Brits or Americans? 

FS: I wouldn’t say it is specific to Africa but I think Africa has an environment that allows innovation to happen because there is such need. Tertiary enrolment rates in Africa are only 8%, in India it’s about 24%, Europe and the US it’s about 60-70%. So just to catch up to India’s level of tertiary enrolment we would need to build 135 universities the size of Harvard every single year for the next 15 years. When you are in that kind of environment, you can’t do things the normal way. To catch up means to completely rethink higher education so that you have models that are more efficient, more effective and much more affordable.

We have no other choice but to innovate because we don’t have the time to go through 300 years of building institutions. We don’t have the resources to do it, we cannot afford to price it at $50,000. Many of these innovations are actually coming from other parts of the world but it is harder to implement because of the tradition of inertia and status quo. It is very similar to when the mobile phone came out, it was not developed in Africa but many of the innovations in mobile technology actually happened faster in Africa and I think we have the same opportunity in education.

The PIE: You have a well-known story which is entrenched in the origins of your university. But I would like to hear something that people might not already know about you.

FS: I don’t get stressed very often. I love pets. I have an Italian greyhound, his name is Iggy, he lives with me in Mauritius with my wife who is from California.

I consider myself a bit of a foodie. I like going on food vacations. Cape Town has some of the world’s best restaurants. I would love to do something in Copenhagen, because my last name is Danish.

The PIE: How did that happen?

FS: Ghana was colonised for a brief period by the Danes, so my great, great grandfather was the last Danish governor of Ghana. He actually wrote down a list of names that he wanted his descendants to be called and Frederick was on that list. My brother’s name is Johan. I have a nephew whose name is Ludvik. That must have been a trendy name in the 1800s

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