Obama says Africa is not moving fast enough

Speaking at the University of Cape Town last week, United States President Barack Obama said there was no question that Africa was on the move – but it was not moving fast enough for children still languishing in poverty in forgotten townships.

“And that’s where the young people of Africa come in. Just like previous generations, you’ve got choices to make. You get to decide where the future lies. Think about it. More than 60% of Africans are under 35 years old,” he said.

“So these demographics mean young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country. You’ve got time and numbers on your side and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.”

In his welcome address to Obama, who visited Cape Town while on a three-country trip through Africa, University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price said that African universities needed expertise and funds to build strong research universities that could contribute to knowledge economies.

Over the past 15 years, said Price, Africa had made progress in expanding access to higher education. But student numbers had increased three times more than funding, resulting in the quality of education often being jeopardised.

Price, the head of Africa’s number one research university, called on some institutions to consider research as a priority in developing low- or middle-income countries. He said the continent should view itself as a contributor to global knowledge with the capacity to develop appropriate, locally relevant solutions.

Unless Africans wanted to remain the consumers of other people’s knowledge and innovation, the recipients of received wisdom with no critical capacity locally to interpret, challenge or advance alternative views of the world, African countries should not ignore furthering their research capacity.

“That capacity resides first and foremost in research universities. Not every university can or should be a research university – but every country needs at least one, and middle-income countries, like South Africa, should support several,” he said.

Price said the continent not only needed researchers and research institutions that could set high standards to produce independent thought and leadership, it also needed to be on a par with peers in the global North.

The necessity of research expertise, nurtured by research-strong universities, was a global phenomenon that should be applied equally to developing and developed nations, “even if there were particular challenges of resource allocation in the case of developing nations”.

Research universities in developing countries would also play a critical role in educating the next generation of academics for the continent at large, he said.

“If there are too few credible research departments, led by top academics, with a critical mass of researchers, PhD students, post-doctoral fellows and laboratories, then aspiring academics will have little option but to study abroad, and the evidence over decades shows that the rate of return from studies abroad makes this a very expensive and inefficient investment.”

Price said research universities were the central element of national innovation systems, linking a country’s innovation system to other nations’ systems, ensuring the highest possible standards of performance across a broad range of disciplines and helping to set national standards of excellence.

“While growing a research university requires significant additional resources that cannot be afforded for all other universities in the country, it is generally not something most low-income country governments will fund – their priority is to raise the quality of teaching among the weakest institutions, to expand access to tertiary education.”

He added that a possible key contribution of international partnerships, such as those that formed the basis of Obama’s commitment to economic development in Africa, could be to build up research universities across the continent. And South African universities could be partners in this.

UCT enrols 30% of its masters and PhD students from outside South Africa and hopes to strengthen research capacity on the continent through the education of the future academic leaders.