Tuning higher education as an engine for innovation

When Nigeria's Dangote Group advertised for 100 truck driver jobs in 2012, six PhDs, 704 masters and more than 8,460 bachelor degree holders were among the 13,000 applicants. Why were the applicants not employed in careers they trained for? We argue that universities are not imparting the knowledge and skills required by Africa’s economies or the world.

In a knowledge-based global economy, the pivotal role of higher education in contributing to the sustainable development of society is unquestionable. This is because higher education institutions are critical to building the human capital that in turn builds the institutions regarded as indispensable to development.

In spite of this, the contributions of African higher education to research and experimental development have in reality been meagre. Even the educational landscapes in which universities and colleges are established do not seem suitable for advancing innovation and experimental research in a way that the African economy demands at this time.

Oiling the engine

In light of these facts, it is imperative to ask: what do African higher education institutions essentially do nowadays? Are they set up in a manner that allows them to promote science, technology and innovations that enable African societies to systematically solve deep-rooted problems? And if not, what actions are required to put in place a new generation of universities that can produce what the African economy urgently needs today and in future?

These are tough questions to answer because they embrace a wide array of issues that need further deep analysis.

However, for now we have tried to settle them down using some proxy variables that are considered important in showing the lay of the land for innovation in Africa. These proxy variables are tertiary education enrolment and the quality issue, gross expenditure on research and development, or R&D, in terms of both regional gross domestic expenditure – GERD – to GDP ratio and per capita income, and world university rankings.

Unimpressive statistics

Dealing with the first indicator, we find that African higher education institutions have the lowest average gross enrolment rate in the world. Statistics from UNESCO (2014) reveal that the average gross enrolment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is 7.7%, compared to the world average gross enrolment rate of 30.1%.

Given the fact that Africa is desperately looking to catch-up with the rest of the world, a lag of 23.3 percentage points is very large by any measure and a big concern for all governments in the region, policy-makers and international funding agencies.

But access to higher education is only part of the problem. Deterioration in quality and outdated curricula are also hindering universities in becoming centres of innovation and development.

We can use graduate unemployment to illustrate that many graduates are unfit for Africa’s dynamic labour market. In South Africa for instance, based on an in-depth analysis of African Economic Outlook on “Education and Skills Mismatch”, the prevalence of 600,000 unemployed university graduates against 800,000 vacant places clearly indicates that universities are producing the wrong kinds of graduates.

Low R&D expenditure

Coming to the second indicator, we make use of UNESCO’s 2009 data, according to which Africa has the world’s lowest spending on R&D in terms of both GERD to GDP ratio and per capita income: the statistics are 0.41% and US$11.8 respectively.

Regions such as North America, Oceania and Europe invested respectively about 2.72%, 2.2%, and 1.76% of GDP on R&D in the same year. Likewise, GERD per capita income for each of these regions is about US$1,223, US$622 and US$449 respectively.

The implications of these figures are crystal clear. The R&D initiative in each of these regions is respectively 103.6, 52.7 and 38.1 times higher than it is in Africa.

Needless to say, as the same data shows, although Africa has about 14.7% of the world population, its share of the world’s R&D initiatives is well below 1%. Thus R&D initiatives in Africa are almost none and knowledge production seems exceptionally low.

University rankings

The 2013-14 World University Rankings further demonstrate the scant knowledge production of African higher education. In the ranking by Times Higher Education, universities are judged on teaching quality, research activities, knowledge transfer and international outlook – which in sum, can be a proxy for innovation.

Within the ranking, only three of the world’s top 400 universities are in Africa, and all of them are in South Africa – the universities of Cape Town (126), Witwatersrand (226-250) and Stellenbosch (300-350). It appears that all but a few African universities are far off the innovation pitch.

Tackling the problem

For African higher education institutions to be centres of excellence and prime movers for community development, there has to be a systematic educational design that is relevant to African societies, particularly in the field of agriculture, through which the majority of African families support their livelihoods.

African higher education needs to be reinvented in ways that equip graduates with the right skills to trigger innovation, societal development, economic growth and competitiveness.

Without reshaping the discourse and creating transformative higher education enriched by innovative thinking, the African continent will be less likely to leverage its economic growth path into a prosperous future.

To do so, Professor Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard University points out, requires deliberate efforts by governments, academia, business and civil society to reinvent higher education and put it to the service of the African people.

A qualitative change in the goals, functions and structure of the university is needed. A more balanced and strategic approach to human capital development is sought in an effort to boost the prospects for economic growth in Africa.

Part of solving higher education’s serious problems is recognising them. The World Bank recently rolled out 19 centres of excellence to help transform science, technology and higher education in West and Central Africa.

However, while appreciating this recent initiative, turning African higher education into an engine for innovation requires actions to increase institutional diversification, strengthen science and technology research and development capacity, and improve the quality and relevance of tertiary education.

Efforts should also be directed towards promoting greater equity mechanisms to assist disadvantaged students, establishing sustainable financing systems to encourage responsiveness and flexibility, strengthening management capacities, and enhancing and expanding ICT capacity to reduce the digital divide.

* Mesele Araya and Habtamu Adane are PhD candidates at the International Doctoral School in Human Capital Formation and Labour Relations at the University of Bergamo in Italy, promoted by ADAPT and CQIA. Their research interests mainly focus on issues related to the economics of education, human capital, innovation, entrepreneurship and the youth labour market.