MALI: New minister to push reform agenda

In an effort to recapture its old standing as the Empire of Gold and the land of ancient civilizations, as well as to haul itself out of the list of the world's 10 poorest countries, Mali has launched 10-year research and higher education reform plan. On 10 April the former rector of the University of Bamako was appointed as Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, tasked with pushing implementation of the reform plan forward.

As former rector of Mali's only higher education institution, Professor Ginette Bellegarde Siby - the new technocratic Minister appointed by Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure - will deal with implementing policies, programmes and projects of the government that she participated in formulating.

The University of Bamako, also known as the University of Mali, encompasses nine campuses across the capital city and has more than 60,000 students.

"Although having a technocrat as higher education minister - a technician with power - is not necessarily important for handling the higher education affairs of the country, this could lead to better management of the higher education reform plan in Mali because of its unique situation," Mamadou Goita, special advisor to the director-general of the Mali-based Rural Economy Institute, told University World News.

Goita indicated that despite a science and technology system with well-established regional and international research and development collaboration, and strong research into agriculture and malaria, Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world with limited S&T capacity and very low spending on higher education research.

The country suffers a shortage of trained scientists and technicians, and relies heavily on foreign assistance - a major handicap in the execution of national research programmes that do not coincide with the priorities of donors.

There are several challenges facing Mali's university and its associated institutions, which serve a population of around 11 million people. They include lacks of adequate professors, infrastructure, equipment and postgraduate students, poor quality learning outcomes and a mismatch between graduates and the needs of the labour market.

In a bid to tackle these problems, Mali is has initiated reform plans aimed at improving the higher education and science and technology sectors as well as achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Besides restructuring the University of Bamako - including its colleges, schools and institutes - to enable the university to better carry out its core mission of teaching, research and outreach, the reform plan promotes e-learning as an effective and low cost tool for training specialists and supporting postgraduate studies.

Under the plan, access to higher education and training by the poor will also be improved, and a few private higher education institutions will be established.

Another strategy is to make use of Malian scientists living abroad to help adapt technology to local conditions, to plug the gap in qualified lecturers and to facilitate greater twinning and exchange between the university in Mali and foreign institutions. To this end, Mali is participating in the UN programme of cooperation and technology transfer known as TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals).

The African Union has backed a proposal from Mali to host an African Centre for Study and Research on Migration, which will among other things identify how African countries could retain skilled personnel, especially scientists, and tap into the brain drain to improve training and technology transfer.

As the second largest cotton exporter in Africa after Egypt and a country that depends on agriculture - which provides employment for more than 75% of the economically active population and accounts for around 44% of the national income - Mali has also launched a US$61 million 10-year plan to encourage and finance agricultural research and development.

The plan will bring together civil society, the private sector and farmers to develop ideas for future agriculture research. The University of Bamako will introduce a new agriculture curriculum to recruit and train new scientists in order to tackle the research skills shortage and the brain drain.

"Mali's educational reform is in a 'race against time' to save the county from poverty, and the authorities are working towards reforming and raising the standards of education to be on par with international standards," Goita concluded.