Universities need new funding models and African donors

Faced with donor fatigue and declining public funding, universities across Sub-Saharan Africa should search for new models of financing specific initiatives such as hubs for research and innovation. One proposal from higher education experts gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, recently was to tap Africa’s growing number of billionaires.

Dr Omotade Akin Aina, executive director of the Nairobi-based Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, said the time had come for Africa to raise money locally and not just look to foreign donors.

“Some of Africa’s billionaires have been funding projects in several leading universities in North America and Western Europe, but we have not approached them for assistance,” he said at a meeting held from 24-25 March under the auspices of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program.

But Professor Ilesanmi Adesida, emeritus dean of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, commented that for African universities to attract support from African billionaires and millionaires, they needed to reinvent themselves as centres of excellence.

“There is no African billionaire who would like to give money to a second-rate university simply because it is located in his home village,” said Adesida.

Quantity versus quality

The meeting faulted some African universities for claiming to be world-class despite their inability to attract highly motivated students, researchers and professors globally and their lack of cutting-edge research or technology transfer.

“It is unfortunate that many African universities are advertising themselves as world-class, merely by signing memorandums of understanding with equally low-grade universities in other parts of the world,” said Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, former executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA.

Dr Emmanuel Akyeampong, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, advised African universities to search for talent, undertake research and mount credible postgraduate programmes in order to raise their profiles.

“Only then, African universities will be able to attract funding, not just from African millionaires but even from other private sources globally,” said Akyeampong.

He stressed that universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology raised funding not by signing memorandums of understanding but from research proposals, patenting and innovation.

There was also frustration among the academics over African universities being proud of their high student enrolment levels while failing to produce new knowledge or provide quality education.

“Universities should be tasked to demonstrate their research and innovation,” said Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, director of research at the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Centre.

“We are surrounded by mediocrity in that there is nothing to show in terms of additional research and knowledge production, although in the last 15 years universities in Africa have increased from 300 to about 2,000,” said Kyobutungi, who is on the advisory council of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program.

Marketisation versus research and innovation

According to Dr Ibrahim Ogachi, programme officer at the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, university student numbers in Africa are growing faster than in any other region of the world.

“Enrolments in universities in Africa more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, increasing from 2.3 million students to 5.2 million students,” said Ogachi. Student numbers are rising by 15% or more a year.

The experts were sharply divided as to whether universities in Sub-Saharan Africa should entrench an entrepreneurial model, continuing to increase access to higher education and education services according to shifting demands of society, or should revert to the traditional missions of knowledge generation and transmission in specific disciplines.

There were fears around the increased commercialisation of higher education, as is happening in Kenya and Uganda, where for the past two decades public universities have established full tuition fee-paying tracks in degree, diploma and certificate courses.

The issue has become a hot topic of academic inquiry as fronted by Ishmael Munene, associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University in the US, who suggests that as universities inch closer to the marketplace they radically shift in character and cannot be relied upon to offer academic leadership.

“In the first place, governance shifts from tested notions of university autonomy and faculty academic freedom to market forces anchored on the sale of teaching, research and services,” wrote Munene in his study, “Profits and Pragmatism: The commercial lives of market universities in Kenya and Uganda”.

So even as the education experts in Nairobi deliberated on the need to have new sources of funding, there were feelings that there needed to be a review of the extensive marketisation of universities that has been most apparent in Kenya and Uganda.

While suspending opening new satellite campuses by public universities last month, Dr Fred Matiang’i, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for education, science and technology, castigated universities for concentrating on intensive marketisation ventures and forgetting their core mandate of research, innovation and academic excellence.

“Some universities have gone to the extent of offering funeral services,” said Matiang’i.

On the other hand, given the neglect of universities by African governments and the unmet demand for higher education, dropping an aggressive model of marketisation could lead to stagnation in public universities.

Need for a ‘Marshall Plan’

Those were some of the hard facts that confronted the experts in Nairobi, who proposed a ‘Marshall Plan’ to rescue African universities from the current quagmire of severe resources shortages, dilapidated infrastructure, overcrowding and lecturer shortages.

Professor Alexandre Lyambabaje, executive secretary of IUCEA, said there was a need for Sub-Saharan African countries to learn to raise money for higher education, or economic development efforts would not succeed.

“The problem that is facing us in the region is how to tap domestic resources for higher education.”

In the search for new models for financing universities, the experts entered the uncharted territory of roping in Africa’s money-men. But only time will tell whether this new model to rescue African universities from resource starvation will succeed or will check marketisation, the ugly face of higher education financing.