World Bank rolls out African centres of excellence

The World Bank continued rolling out its African centres of excellence initiative this month, meeting representatives of universities in Nigeria – the country won 10 of the 15 centres – to discuss logistics around how the funding will be disbursed.

The project seeks to promote regional scientific specialisation to deliver quality training and research, starting in West and Central Africa.

Andreas Blom, the World Bank’s lead economist for African education, met with Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, or NUC, in the capital Abuja to discuss how the total grant of US$73 million to universities in the country would be channeled.

The Africa Centres of Excellence – ACE – project covers seven countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo. The 15 centres, selected from a total of 52 applications from the region, were announced late last year.

Kavita Watsa, the World Bank’s senior communications officer for Africa, told University World News that following the initial announcement of the 15 regional centres of excellence, an additional three were picked by Nigeria from its pool of excellent applications.

Nigeria would support the additional centres with funding from the International Development Association, or IDA, the World Bank group's fund for the poorest countries.

Blom said it was rather unfortunate that outside South Africa, there were no Sub-Saharan African universities in the world’s top 500 universities globally. But he hoped the ACE project would soon change that, by building African capacity to solve African problems.

He said ACE would tackle development challenges and poverty reduction in West and Central Africa by providing skills identified in sectors such as extractive industries, energy, water, infrastructure, health and information communication technologies.

Watsa said The Gambia was the only non-ACE hosting country participating in the project. It would receive US$3 million to purchase educational services such as faculty development, scholarships, curriculum development within the science, technology, engineering and maths fields, and the health and agricultural sciences from the 18 selected centres.

She said a proposed phase two for ACE in Eastern and Southern Africa was being explored, pending country interest and progress on phase one.

Driving the project

Minister of Education Nyesom Wike welcomed Nigeria’s success in hosting 13 centres of excellence, saying that the country was in dire need of development in the specified areas. He expressed hope that more grants would be given for more areas of need.

Professor Julius Okojie, executive secretary of the National Universities Commission, called on the vice-chancellors of the host universities to support the research teams in the new centres of excellence.

Okojie warned against changing ACE project team members, saying that those who developed the projects must be allowed to see them through. He said the NUC would not hesitate to advise the World Bank to withdraw support from any university that changed researchers within the period of the research.

He also asked university managers to ensure the accessibility of funds that have been made available for the projects. Okojie said the success of the project would serve to improve the university system and reverse the notion of poor quality Nigerian graduates.

The Association of African Universities has been supporting the regional coordination and facilitation of the project.

The initiative has a strong emphasis on collaboration with regional partners, including the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the West African Economic and Monetary Union, the East African Community and CAMES – the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education – as well as additional development partners.

Regional skills problem

The World Bank document outlining the project says higher education in West and Central Africa has been a low priority for the past two decades with access to higher education for the relevant age group remaining at 5% – the lowest regional average in the world and a fifth of the global average of about 25%.

The underfunding has been blamed for high rates of 'brain drain' from Africa as its finest minds pursue training and research opportunities abroad.

High-level knowledge and expertise were essential to transform African economies, according to the document. For example, the extractive industries need specialised civil, electrical and petroleum engineers, geologists and environmental and legal specialists, but these positions were currently largely filled by expatriates.

The World Bank believes Africa needs a green revolution. While the sector has undergone a revival in investment, this funding has not been accompanied by development of human capital. “The lack of crop and animal scientists, as well as veterinarians and agronomists has become a bottleneck in transforming agriculture in the region,” it argued.

Africa is at the bottom of almost every knowledge economy indicator, according to the World Bank.

The region has some of the lowest researcher-to-population ratios in the world, with 17 researchers per million people in Ghana, 38 in Nigeria and 45 in Burkina Faso compared to an average of about 481 in Latin America, 1,714 in East Asia and the Pacific and 2,664 in Europe and Central Asia.