Pilot study fills data gaps for regional STEM project

Benchmarking as a tool for improving quality in African universities was the focus of the first regional benchmarking and capacity building workshop organised by the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology – PASET – and held in Abuja, Nigeria last week.

Backed by the World Bank, one of the spinoffs of the initiative will be to provide a clearer picture of what happens to science, engineering and technology graduates after they leave Sub-Saharan African universities and how well those universities are preparing students for the labour market.

Already, this picture is a little clearer following a pilot study started in February this year.

However, initial results released at the Abuja workshop revealed that some of the 48 universities which participated did not have a complete set of data needed to create a fully representative picture of institutional strengths and weaknesses.

Filling in the gaps

Global tertiary education expert and former coordinator of the World Bank's tertiary education programme, Jamil Salmi, said universities involved in the pilot had already taken measures to collect the missing data and incorporate it into their strategic plans.

“Not all universities had a good sense of what happens to their graduates after they leave university,” Salmi told University World News in an interview after the workshop. He said tracking students and graduates was an important piece of information in the context of high drop-out rates.

“These results will provide a template for African universities to improve their performance. They will use the results to identify their strengths and weakness,” said Salmi.

The two-day workshop was organised by the World Bank Education Team for Sub-Saharan Africa in collaboration with the Association of African Universities and the National Universities Commission of Nigeria. It was attended by representatives of 42 universities from 20 countries in the region.

The programme brings together African governments, the private sector, education institutions, development partners, businesses outside the continent and new partners that include Brazil, China, Korea and India to build a flow of priority skills from the technical-vocational level to the postgraduate level in the region.

The power of benchmarking

The World Bank believes that for African economies that seek to build human capital, measuring institutional performance in science, engineering and technology education is a priority.

Benchmarking, which gives institutions the opportunity for voluntary self-assessment against key indicators, offers an internationally tested method for strengthening the quality of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – knowledge transfer.

In terms of its call-to-action, first adopted in Senegal’s capital Dakar in 2014, PASET aims to facilitate the production of at least 10,000 PhDs in applied science, engineering and technology fields across Sub-Saharan Africa, and double the number of students in applied science, engineering and technology (ASET) programmes in at least 10 African countries.

Generally, PASET is geared towards increasing the capacity of universities and research centres to generate knowledge that can address Africa’s development challenges.

Critical to the success of the programme is the use of institutional data for quality improvement purposes.

Regional data centre

To this end, the World Bank has announced it will issue a call for proposals this year, for the establishment of a regional data centre to provide technical assistance to higher education institutions and national agencies.

The call will be open to universities, Pan-African organisations and national agencies based in Sub-Saharan Africa which already have strong capacity in data analysis.

The centre’s staff will be trained by the World Bank experts in collaboration with the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. An advisory board will support and advise the centre and its partners and the benchmarking secretariat will support and fund its activities.

Sajitha Bashir, practice manager for education in Eastern and Southern Africa at the World Bank, said the PASET regional benchmarking initiative was seeking sponsorships and partnerships with traditional and non-traditional donors to financially support its activities.

This particularly could include the establishment of a potential regional centre which could possibly be integrated into an existing, competitively selected African institution, and its budget will mainly include staff salaries and training.

“Once the initiative is fully funded, it will be opened to a larger group of universities,” Bashir told University World News.

A sustainable financial model

Bashir added that prior to the opening of the centre, a sustainable financial model will also be developed to generate enough capital to support activities beyond the first three years.

Universities will be monitored in respect of institutional performance over a certain period, and improvements in performance.

Employers would contribute to the improvement of the quality of programmes and graduates, and would identify universities with which they could work to improve curricula and engage with in relation to applied research, technology transfers and internships.

A concept note for PASET says the regional benchmarking team will consolidate and analyse necessary data and make the results available to participating institutions through a secured web tool. Universities can agree to share their data among themselves.

Indicators for performance will be grouped into a top 25%, middle 50% and bottom 25%, excluding aggregate scores to avoid similarities to university rankings.