To capitalise on the demographic dividend and create the economies of the future, Africa must move away from post-colonial university models and create institutions that house teaching, research and entrepreneurship under one roof, argues Calestous Juma.
Africa’s youth is dynamic and entrepreneurial. This exciting, fizzing generation’s drive needs to be channelled into powerful innovation for the economy and society. Youth, like fish, does not keep. But, unlike fish, it cannot be stored in the deep freezer for future use. Reaping the benefits of the demographic dividend requires deliberate policy to prepare the youth for changing work and equip them with the necessary skills. It is for this reason that the 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) focuses on higher technical training, especially in the engineering and entrepreneurial fields.
Reforming African universities to bring them in line with STISA-2024 will be one of the most challenging tasks in Africa’s technological transformation. Much of today’s progress will soon reach its limits because of the low level of investment in higher technical training and research.
The current policy agenda has tended to focus on allocating at least 1% of each country’s GDP to research and development (R&D). The figure is politically appealing and easy to include in conference recommendations. But the focus on 1% of GDP fails to account for the magnitude of the challenges – for many countries 1% of GDP is a small figure. Also, other options to harness knowledge for broader development are required as 1% of GDP may be a large proportion of government spending – in Nigeria, it would take up about 20% of the federal budget.
Poor institutional arrangements for research and higher education in most African countries are holding the continent back. Africa is saddled with higher education systems that were created in the early 1960s to train functionaries. Very few of the universities have curricula or use teaching methods that promote innovation.
In many African countries universities do little research, which is mainly performed in national research institutes. This approach is dysfunctional for two main reasons. First, universities do not normally use the latest research findings for teaching. The result is graduates with outdated worldviews. Second, research institutes do not have students so they lack the student power that helps to bring their new knowledge into the economy through business applications.
African leaders need to find creative ways to bring research, teaching and entrepreneurship under one roof. This would help Africa create the next generation of research and entrepreneurial universities. There are several opportunities that can help to achieve the goal of creating universities for innovation. It is time to move away from post-colonial university models that train people in fields that have no immediate relevance.
Starting the start-up university
The good news is that a number of African countries are moving in this direction. Ethiopia recently created 24 new universities that will focus on science, technology and innovation. The new universities are being encouraged to focus on development priorities. For example, the Addis Ababa Science and Technology University has launched a leather technology course. Ethiopia is a leading producer of skins and hides.
Second, Africa’s national research institutes provide a strong foundation upon which to create new graduate schools. Creative approaches are needed to add graduate teaching functions to the institutes. For example, Uganda’s Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute is on the cutting edge of agricultural biotechnology. It could be upgraded to push into frontier fields such as synthetic biology for agriculture and environmental conservation.
Third, most African line ministries have their own research and training institutes. Many of them could be upgraded to serve as graduate schools focusing on the missions of the line ministries. One obvious example is upgrading aviation training schools so that they can function as graduate research and entrepreneurial universities. This would allow airports to function like teaching hospitals. Similarly, telecommunications ministries have training institutes that could be upgraded to information technology universities. Ghana and Kenya have done this but it is not clear how the new universities are integrated into the parent ministries and the economy.
The value of this approach is to retain the universities or schools in their line ministries so they continue to be relevant to the specific sector. An example is the Uganda University of Military Science and Technology under the Uganda People’s Defence Force. Among other skills, the university trains railway engineers. Tanzania has also created four new development universities that are embedded in the Ministry of Telecommunications, Science and Technology.
Third, private and public enterprises can also help expand higher technical training through in-house programmes. Brazil’s Petrobras University is such an example. In Morocco, the Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) is building a new research university by investing part of the revenue from the sale of phosphates. Firms can also help to consolidate training activities across industries to create dedicated training and research programmes. This approach would improve upon the current emphasis on firm-specific training.
With proper incentives such activities could contribute to the firms as well as to the wider economy. Such training facilities could also be embedded in existing universities. For example, Safaricom is financing a namesake academy at Strathmore University in Kenya that offers a Master of Science degree in mobile telecommunications and innovation.
Finally, large infrastructure projects provide unique opportunities for expanding technical training and innovation. For example, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could train young people in the diverse engineering skills related to the design, construction and implementation of hydropower projects. These include geological, hydrological, electrical, electronic, civil and mechanical engineering skills. In addition, subjects such as economics, sociology, anthropology and political economy can be offered to provide the full breadth of knowledge needed for effective infrastructure projects.
The range of skills extends to the consumer sector. The production of power is only one step in a series of activities that include promoting access. It takes a wide range of skills to design, produce and sell electrical appliances. The GERD and other infrastructure projects are therefore important wellsprings of technical skills that could be consolidated into an in situ engineering and business university.
The skills learned in such a setting could then radiate into the wider economy. Those who learn about electrical engineering, for example, could apply their skills in other forms of power generation. Similarly, those who learn about civil engineering could transfer the knowledge to other forms of construction.
Adding engineering colleges to large infrastructure projects would have little impact on the cost structure. The investment could be justified as part of the costs of long-term maintenance. More importantly, the initial design of such projects should include providing higher technical training from the outset, since such infrastructure projects are important reservoirs for technical skills and entrepreneurial talent.
One of the main reasons such upgrades do not occur is because line ministries are afraid that higher education ministries would take over their institutes and the budgets if they became universities. A combination of creativity across sectors and flexibility in government policy would go a long way in helping Africa to reinvent its higher education systems to sustain the spawning of young innovators.