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Leaders of the industrialised world meeting at the G8 summit in Scotland have agreed to help develop professional skills through networks between higher education institutions and centres of excellence in science and technology. This is a big shift in aid policy from the current focus on primary education.
But funding for such activities will have little impact unless African countries reform their universities and research institutions to focus on solving local problems.
Many African universities were created to train civil servants, but times have changed. Today, Africa needs to stimulate economic growth so it can work its way out of poverty. Universities must contribute to this task.
The good news is that Africa can learn from successful efforts to bring technical knowledge to development. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished the army and used part of the saved revenue for higher education. This helped the country prosper and become an economic force in central America. Costa Rica ’s Earth University pioneered a new teaching model that focuses on training young people to create enterprises.
A large part of the reconstruction of Rwanda after the genocide was done through the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (Kist). The institute is at the forefront of providing alternative energy sources such as biogas. Its students have built footbridges.
Imagination and creativity are the resources money cannot buy. While in the US, universities incubate businesses, in Asia private enterprises are the main incubators of universities. South Korea’s Pohang Iron and Steel Company established the Pohang Science and Technology University (Postech) in 1986 to serve as a world-class research and teaching institution. Today, Postech is one of the top technical universities in Asia .
In Brazil, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro helps society by training students and producing new enterprises in its Genesis Institute.
Africa has its lessons, too. Zambia’s largest internet provider, Zamnet, was born at the country’s national university. South Africa’s Stellenbosch University offers a shining example of how to adjust curricula to the needs of research and development organisations. It was the first university in the world to design and launch a microsatellite.
In Uganda , Makerere University has developed new teaching approaches that allow students to solve public health problems in their communities as part of their training.
Universities can also play a role as social entrepreneurs. Students at Ghana’s University of Education, Winneba, tune into Radio Windy Bay to listen to lectures. The university could use radio and other tools such as podcasting to extend its mission to the wider community.
African countries will need to take steps to benefit from a new focus on support for higher education. They must align their policies and government structures with the need to put science and technology at the centre of development. This will involve the appointment of science and innovation advisers to help leaders focus on the role of innovation in development.
Governments will need to rehabilitate university infrastructure, especially their communications and information facilities, to become part of the global knowledge community. Such links will also help them to tap into their experts in diasporas. Outmoded curricula that focus on training students to become paper shufflers and pen pushers must be replaced by new approaches that encourage creativity, enquiry and entrepreneurship.
It is also crucial that emphasis is placed on bringing research, teaching and community outreach together. Medical schools should be more directly integrated into hospitals, just as agricultural research stations should have a strong teaching role.
Finally, universities should enjoy greater autonomy from state control so that they can adapt in a timely manner to a rapidly changing world.
If African universities do not make these changes, they will become increasingly marginal and their status will decline. Governments will do no better if they fail to make knowledge the driving force for improvement.
These reforms need to be made even if financial aid is not available because the times have changed. As the philosopher Eric Fromm once observed, in times of change only learners inherit the Earth.
Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.