World Bank centres of excellence to be selected soon

Phase one of the Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence initiative, being sponsored by the World Bank to the tune of US$158 million, is expected to kick off in the third week of November when the identities of universities that have been selected to host the centres will be made public.

Short-listing of proposals from applicants was completed at the end of October, when a panel tasked with selecting the beneficiary institutions was supposed to complete the task and forward the list to the World Bank for final approval.

The project, which the bank is undertaking in partnership with the Association of African Universities, or AAU, has attracted some 31 applications from participating countries, for up to 15 centres of excellence that the bank has pledged to fund under the initiative.

The panel has been meeting in Dakar, capital of Senegal, and sifting through the proposals, among which 27 made the short-list.

“The short-list is ready and beginning the final week of October the names of successful applicants will be forwarded to the World Bank, which will make known approved centres before the end of November,” said Professor Jonathan Mba, the AAU’s director of research and academic planning, who led the evaluation panel.

The evaluation process involved visiting and inspecting physical facilities in interested universities, as well as intensive analysis of the proposals, seeking to evaluate the viability of potential centres and the capacity of institutions to implement their ideas.

“We have received good and exciting proposals from participating countries and we are sure that those proposed centres that will qualify will make an impact in the development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] in Africa,” Mba added.

The Africa Higher Education Centres of Excellence, or ACE, project will first be implemented in West and Central Africa with universities in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and Togo eligible to participate.

Universities that offer training to students from across the region are also eligible for funding and support under the initiative.

Nigerian universities led by the University of Ibadan submitted the highest number of proposals – 15 of the 27 that were shortlisted by the evaluation panel – raising fears that institutions from Africa’s most populous country could dominate when the final list is decided.

The centres of excellence project

Under ACE the World Bank is spending US$158.3 million and centres will be eligible for funding of up to US$8 million.

Up to 10 universities in the target countries will be picked and a maximum of 15 centres will be funded, with joint centres between institutions being encouraged, according to a project document by Andreas Blom, task team leader and the World Bank’s lead economist for African education.

The initiative hopes to boost training and research in STEM, health and agricultural sciences to produce high quality manpower for accelerated development of the continent.

Its development objective is “to strengthen the capacity of selected universities and their partner institutions to deliver high quality training and applied research at the regional level” within fields of particular relevance to Africa’s development, according to the project document.

“The higher objective is to meet the labour market demands for skills within specific areas where there are skills shortages affecting development outcomes and economic growth.

“Further, the project will, on a demand basis, invest in well-performing universities that can start building a foundation for Africa to increase knowledge and technology absorption, and build knowledge-based competitive advantages.”

The project consists of two components: building capacity in institutions to produce highly skilled people in key areas; and achieving regional impact through talent and labour mobility.

Qualifying universities and centres will be supported to bolster postgraduate programmes, attract top researchers, produce more research, improve curricula with input from experts, and offer specialised courses for industry professionals.

Where necessary, existing facilities will be upgraded and better resourced and equipped. A maximum of 15% of the funds will be channelled to physical infrastructure, with the bulk of the money to be spent on ‘softer’ needs such as faculty and curriculum development, scholarships, learning resources and equipment.

No money will go to paying faculty salaries, but short-term visits by faculty and consultants will be covered.

The successful completion of the process sets the stage for commencement and actualisation of ACE early in 2014, which according to Blom, originally obtained funding approval from the bank’s board in May 2013.