united nationsZambia's latest United Nations human development report has urged significantly greater investment in the higher education sector. It recommends that decision-making be decentralised and universities be allowed to charge economic fees, among other actions.

A leap in human resource capacity investments, especially at the local level, was needed to ensure that skilled personnel with adequate means could overcome the 'last mile challenge'.

The Southern African nation's report, launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country office last month, revealed that access to higher education remained very low.

It said information supplied by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Vocational Training indicated that current potential demand for tertiary education, estimated at 1.63 million youths, was far from being met.

Zambia Human Development Report 2011: Service delivery for sustainable human development was produced by the UNDP in conjunction with the Zambian government and focuses on agriculture, water and sanitation, health and education. It proposes key institutional and regulatory reforms to achieve current policies.

Its main objective is to reveal what has been achieved so far and what gaps remain in order to raise the bar on access to better services, including higher education.

Among many recommendations, the development report said Zambia's government should substantially increase allocations to the education sector and "ensure that the inordinate reduction in tertiary level budgets is stemmed to encourage growth in skills development for service delivery.

"Authorities could consider granting tertiary-level institutions autonomy to charge cost recovery fees, while ensuring measures to allow access to higher education for needy and deserving students."

The report argued for the need to develop a skills training information management system within the Ministry of Science, Technology and Vocational Training that captures national data on the needs and concerns of various ministries, non-governmental organisations and the private sector.

It said an information management system could also assist in monitoring progress regarding the contribution of the higher education system to the development of the national skills pool.

Other recommendations were to increase and accelerate investment in higher education to improve access and quality, and to make public sector efforts more effective and efficient by carefully developing and effectively implementing a framework for contracting services to non-state actors.

The report said the slow pace of decentralisation of decision-making and the lack of a sound legal framework within higher education was retarding sustainable growth and human development.

It added that since the 1990s, Zambia had not balanced priorities in primary, secondary and higher education. The strong emphasis on basic education had meant that the other levels of education did not receive the required attention in terms of expansion, rehabilitation, educational materials support or curriculum review.

"In line with its Sixth National Development Plan, Zambia could adhere to its target of increasing access to post-basic and tertiary education and improving quality at all levels by developing innovative ways to encourage public-private partnerships in education, among other strategies," the report said.