Research universities to shape Africa's future success

Recognition that universities - and research universities in particular - are critical to development and to building knowledge economies will enable Africa to grow its prosperity for the next 50 years, African Union chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said last week.

Renewed focus on building research universities in an African context and a drive to increase the number of PhDs was taking place within a broader understanding that universities could help drive the continent to be a global leader.

The 20th anniversary of South Africa's transition to democracy and 50th for the Organisation of African Unity - now the African Union - provided an enriched environment in which discussion on how Africa can propel its future development could take place.

"This context includes work to consolidate development lessons from the first 50 years of independence, and to map out a vision and key milestones," Dlamini-Zuma said in a public lecture on African universities at the University of Pretoria in South Africa last Thursday.

Continent-wide consultations would end with the adoption of Agenda 2063, an integrated vision and framework for the next half century, at the next African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea in June.

Education challenges

Despite increased public and private investments in infrastructure across the continent, huge backlogs remained, Dlamini-Zuma said.

Areas such as Africa's huge biodiversity - both fauna and flora - which was vulnerable to climate change, must be nurtured and developed. But skills, knowledge, research, innovation and technology were required.

A renewed impetus was required to look more generally at the revitalisation of higher education and the university sector in Africa, and more specifically the role of research universities, she argued.

"We are often presented with an either-or situation, that given the African level of development we should concentrate on primary education, then secondary and we will eventually get to higher education.

"But in today's world, no country can simply develop on the basis of primary or even secondary education," Dlamini-Zuma stressed.

First and most important was increasing investment in African people, especially its young people.

By 2025, a quarter of the world's under 25-year-olds will be African. This was both an opportunity and a challenge, given that currently less than 10% of African 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in any form of post-school education or training.

But the growth of African universities had stagnated over two decades, when structural adjustment programmes focused on disinvesting from higher education in favour of primary education, Dlamini-Zuma said.

This had killed public research and industrial policy capacity and resulted in African expenditure per university student dropping from US$6,800 in 1980 to US$1,200 in 2002.

Although enrolments in higher education had increased by an average of 16% per year since 2000, universities were saddled with poor infrastructure, high teaching loads, inadequately resourced libraries, laboratories and poor academic remuneration.

Universities take charge

The link between universities as producers, reproducers and disseminators of knowledge, and social and economic development, had been a consistent component of endogenous African development since the 1960s, she said.

But sixty years later, with more than 1,000 post-school and higher education institutions operating across the continent, Africa's footprint in global knowledge production remained negligible. The continent produced less than 1% of science and technology journal articles published globally.

Dlamini-Zuma said research universities should be accorded a special place in achieving an African renaissance and realising the vision of an integrated, peaceful and prosperous continent.

Universities must help to provide answers to vexing questions such as the most effective ways to eliminate malaria, the most efficient transport technology, reversing the disappearance of Lake Chad and improving urban planning to eliminate slums.

The training of masters and PhD graduates, researchers, professionals and academics, as well as their contribution to new knowledge production, must continue.

"Africa needs a skills revolution with drastic increase in vocational, professional and academic training, but they must be linked to the demands of industries."

Fine-tuning production

University leaders, under huge pressure to enrol more students and cope with financial burdens, had to focus most of their attention on strategic planning, cost-cutting and income-generation at the expense of the core business of ensuring improvements in curriculum, pedagogy and research.

Dlamini-Zuma said the continent-wide dialogue about the future of higher education should pay attention to this critical issue.

"It is for this reason that the science and technology framework under discussion by the African Union argues for drastically scaled-up investments in post-school education, in science, research and development and in innovation, which should also directly benefit research universities," she said.

Another continent-wide dialogue on higher education transformation, differentiation, creating continental centres of excellence, harmonisation, access and building a core of strong research universities was also taking place.

"This dialogue is important, so that the university and higher education sector also make contributions towards Agenda 2063, the future of Africa and towards milestones to achieve this future."

She said the development of strong African research universities should also be seen as integral to the pan-African integration project.

"We may not be able to develop a world-class university in every country, but we should build networks and pool resources to build specific institutional centres of excellence as well as centres of excellence according to discipline."

These efforts should, she said, benefit from the increasing mobility of African skills, including skills from the African diaspora.

"Our efforts to build individual and networks of research universities must also deliberately encourage collaboration among African universities, researchers, academics and scientists. We so often cooperate with researchers, academics, scientists and institutions from overseas, and yet to a lesser extent with scientists from the African continent."

Dlamini-Zuma said the information and communications technology revolution had presented challenges but also great opportunities for the sector. ICTs were making knowledge more accessible through online content including in journals, books and potentially entire libraries, and were supporting teaching and research.

She admitted that the African Union had yet to explore how the creation of a virtual Pan African University could contribute towards massification of higher education on the scale required.

"Higher education must help develop the skills to accelerate our development, to industrialise, to build and maintain our infrastructure, to manage our diversity and natural resources, to build shared prosperity, to strengthen and deepen our democracies and to building peaceful societies," she concluded.