Developmental universities – The debate continues

A few weeks ago I wrote an article, "The case for developmental universities", for University World News which has so far received a total of 33 responses from individuals in different parts of the world.

Using Ghanaian universities as a case study, the central argument of the article is that Africa needs developmental universities rather than the classical universities that have dominated the higher education terrain on the continent.

A developmental university may be conceptualised as one with an expanded horizon that fosters collaboration with multiple external institutions, agencies and stakeholders in its role as a generator and disseminator of knowledge for national development purposes.

A developmental university needs the support of and input from a network of external institutions and stakeholders for formulating and implementing its national development ideas, strategies and research.

To clarify, it should be noted that transition to developmental status does not suggest a complete abandonment of the ideals of the classical university such as critical inquiry and analysis, intellectual freedom, honesty and tolerance, inter-faculty cooperation and humanism. That would amount to throwing out the baby with the bath water.

On the contrary, these ideals assume a new role, relevance and meaning under the ambit of the developmental university.

Moreover, the inclusion of the word development as part of a university’s name or its mission or value statement does not necessarily make it a developmental university. It is what the university contributes in relation to national development goals that makes it affirmatively a developmental university.

Some readers who responded shared similar papers on the issue of developmental universities, while many others posed critical questions and comments. I analysed them and categorised them into themes for the benefit of readers who were not privy to the correspondence. These themes consist of the language of instruction and learning, funding, explosive admissions growth, the value of knowledge, graduate employability skills and guidelines for transition to the developmental university.

Language of instruction and learning

Colonial languages (Arabic, English, French and Portuguese) are used for teaching and learning in African universities. Correspondents pointed out that these colonial languages are not the mother tongues of the vast majority of African university students and for this reason they generally tend to be incompetent users of those languages.

Accordingly, it would be an enormous challenge for professors and students to require that all undergraduate programmes focus on research, given that research demands high language proficiency.

In a developmental university, like in a classical university, first-year undergraduate students would be expected to learn to write, read and present their ideas better. Critical and logical reasoning skills, analytical and critical ability and heuristic problem-solving would be built into undergraduate first-year courses as part of the preparation of students for research-focused courses in the second, third and fourth years.

Given that research is both language-based and cognition-demanding, a supportive system should be put in place to assist students to develop effective writing, reading and presentation skills in their first year. Several models are available for achieving this goal.

Nevertheless, since a majority of university-bound students come from senior secondary schools, African developmental universities should devise creative ways to contribute towards the preparation of these students before they get to university.


The core mission of developmental universities is knowledge production through research. Certainly, this involves some level of investment in laboratory facilities, library resources and computer technology accessibility. Additionally, it entails professors not only doing research in their fields of specialisation for development purposes but also participating in national, regional, continental and global development discussions.

Six of those who responded to the article asserted that African universities do not have the financial resources for such investment; hence, the most pragmatic route for African public universities is to be teaching-oriented.

It is an undeniable fact that most African public universities are poorly funded. African governments are unable to provide enough funding to these universities and revenues from other sources like tuition fees and donations are only sufficient to meet their minimum needs. Consequently, a vast majority of African universities cannot afford air tickets for their professors or lecturers to travel abroad periodically to participate in global conferences either as presenters or attendees.

However, African universities have to strive to perform their developmental role within the constraints of their limited resources. For example, they could organise national conferences and invite their professional colleagues from other universities within the country and around the globe.

Ghana has about a dozen public universities and more than a dozen private universities. Why can’t they organise conferences to share ideas, research, discoveries, development strategies and leadership models?

Furthermore, we have to juxtapose the limited financial budgets of African universities with their management inefficiency. In fact, African universities are not immune from the financial and physical resource mismanagement common in African government ministries and departments. Financial and physical resource wastage amounting to tens of millions of dollars must be eliminated from some of these universities and an appropriate system of financial budgeting strictly observed and adhered to.

African university leaders have to put their creativity and energy to work to convert their classical universities into developmental universities for the benefit of their individual countries.

Explosive admissions growth

One writer alluded to the fact that, in addition to the paucity of funding, there is the burden of the explosive rise in enrolment in African public universities.

Using public universities in Ghana as an illustration, a 1991 government higher education reform policy stipulates that universities must widen their admissions policy to meet the demand of school leavers. The policy also includes a generous interest rate subsidisation scheme for student loans.

Thus in the 2008-09 academic year Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology admitted 9,298 undergraduate students which represents an increase of around 11% over that of the previous academic year. In 2013-14 the University of Mines and Technology (a small university established in 2004) had admissions figures of 508 undergraduate students, amounting to an approximately 21% increase since the 2011-12 academic year.

These increases in enrolment put considerable pressure on those universities because they did not receive a corresponding rise in funding to cover the increased demand for academic, residential and other facilities.

The increasing enrolment growth without any expansion in facilities and infrastructure has negative consequences for any transition to developmental university orientation in Africa. It leads to the creation of large classes as an ad hoc solution. It then becomes almost impossible for professors to implement innovative pedagogical strategies such as research assignments, field trips, internships, forms of student participation and essays for assessment of learning.

The net result is that professors are compelled to use didactic modes of teaching such as lecturing, professor-dominated discourses and a multiple-choice format for assessment of learning as a means of managing their students and their time efficiently. The heavy teaching loads render it almost impossible for professors to engage in research that promotes the university’s developmental role.

University leaders must take up such issues with government authorities. From observation, African university professors rarely care about work conditions unless they directly affect their pay packets or financial benefits.

The value of knowledge

Some correspondents pointed out that African governments and societies generally place little value on knowledge. Thus, the mere production of knowledge, these correspondents contended, will not earn developmental universities the status of development agents. But much depends on the nature of knowledge developmental universities produce in Africa.

Practical knowledge, as opposed to abstract knowledge, would have wider societal acceptability. Certainly, some African governments may not appreciate the knowledge production role of developmental universities, particularly if it challenges the status quo or the ideological positioning of the government.

Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that in the past two decades democratic roots have grown deeply on the African continent such that it would be difficult for any government to victimise a university because of the nature of development knowledge it produces.

With African experimental socialism, one-party systems and military dictatorships now buried in the ashes of history, African countries have never had such a stable and conducive political environment to convert their classical universities into developmental universities.

Finally, we have to bear in mind that some developmental universities may not be fully content with the mere production of knowledge, especially if the knowledge they produce is not having any developmental effects on the country where they are located. Some may go to the extent of commercialising the knowledge they produce or sell the patents for royalties or immediate revenue.

Indeed, in a 2011 review of Ghana’s science, technology and innovation policy, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that a large amount of scientific knowledge that the state-sponsored research institutes produce is not developed into commercial products or services owing to a lack of entrepreneurial culture in those research institutes.

This suggests the importance of encouraging entrepreneurial skills at developmental universities.

Graduate employability

Mass university graduate unemployment has become a major national problem in African countries. Two correspondents argued that the proliferation of universities, the exponential growth in university admissions and government policy on university accessibility in Africa have contributed to graduate unemployment rather than graduate lack of skills.

The correspondents further argued that the rate of job creation in the public or private sector has not kept up with the number of university graduates produced annually. The correspondents therefore questioned the connection between university graduate unemployment in Africa and the concept of the developmental university.

The correspondents’ arguments have the ring of truth. But they may be unaware that university graduates in Africa possess a skill-set that does not match that required for the few available job opportunities in the private and semi-private (NGOs, foundations, etc) sectors. The skill-set required for these jobs includes analysis, problem-solving, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, creativity and innovation.

Developmental universities are oriented towards research students that cultivate these skills as an integral part of their education. Besides, developmental universities assist their students to acquire valuable entrepreneurial skills through internships, academic course work, research and workshops to enable them to create jobs for themselves when they graduate.

Guidelines for transition to the developmental university

Four correspondents asked me for models to guide conversion from classical to developmental university status. In my article, I quoted Professor Judith Sutz who stated that no ready-made models exist to guide the transition to developmental status and suggested creativity and thoughtful engagement with agencies, institutions and stakeholders within and outside the universities as an important step. Since Judith Sutz’s statement researchers have published a few guidelines, but they are not comprehensive.

A known model was proposed by South African university professors Mokubung Nkomo and Chika Sehoole in an article published in 2007 in The International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

The authors graphically depicted two possible sets of conditions for rural-based universities: the static/albatross and dynamic catalytic conditions. The static/albatross condition is marked by poverty, low GDP, low productivity, illiteracy and innumeracy, high unemployment and unskilled labour. On the other hand, the dynamic catalytic condition is the direct opposite of the static/albatross condition.

According to the authors, a rural-based university can become dynamic through a meaningful engagement with community institutions and stakeholders.

A noticeable strength of this model is that it gives an invaluable focus for a university that wants to transition to developmental status. In addition, the model has applicability beyond a rural setting. Nevertheless, one of its weaknesses is it fails to suggest any strategy about how a university can go about creating the required dynamic condition.

A meaningful interaction and engagement with community institutions and stakeholders is a good strategy, but it cannot by itself create a sense of dynamism without a transformation of the university’s outlook. This includes eschewing its elitist outlook; maintaining an openness and respectability for indigenous knowledge; establishing a vibrant research culture; and reforming its pedagogical practices.

From my observation, professors in Africa rarely accept indigenous knowledge as having any useful value. Rather they present themselves as experts of Euro-American knowledge for the purpose of dominance over the masses.

They know that the experts on indigenous knowledge are the non-university educated and non-fluent users of colonial languages. Ironically, outside Africa African professors are vociferous and self-acclaimed experts of indigenous knowledge to boost their image in a circle of international colleagues.

Call to action

African countries have many pressing but basic economic, political and social problems. These countries are at the bottom of every index of human development. African universities must play their part in solving these problems. In fact, their developmental role starts now and it is greater than their traditional teaching and human resources production roles.

In this context, teaching and learning contribute to skills development and the acquisition of analytical and critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and research skills. This will produce graduates who are creative, critical, skilful communicators and problem-solving oriented. And the universities will also have research centres that periodically publish and communicate their research findings and discoveries to government as well as the general public.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng, who works as a private education consultant, holds a doctoral degree in educational administration and policy from Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.