Of life and death – Universities and the environment

The issue of resource constraints features consistently in all discussions on the role of universities in environmental management – a sub-theme of the recent 14th General Conference of the Association of African Universities or AAU, held in Accra, Ghana earlier this month. But as Tanzanian lecturer Simon Ngalomba reminded the conference, climate change is now a “life and death” concern.

In a paper on the role of universities in addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation challenges, Ngalomba said against the backdrop of growing awareness around climate change, universities have little option but to adjust to the “emerging realities” and accept their critical role in addressing the challenges through teaching, research, campus activities and community outreach.

Focusing on the University of Dar es Salaam, he concluded that while a recent study suggested that the university has the capacity to deal with climate change in terms of qualified human resources, such efforts are hampered by inadequate financial resources allocated to climate change activities.

External funding

“The lion’s share of research activities undertaken at [the] university are mainly financed by external funds from donors. This is contrary to what is articulated in the [university’s] Vision 2061 which stipulates that the university will allocate adequate funds to undertake research activities. However, it is not clear how the climate change agenda can be implemented amidst cost-cutting measures in all public institutions, including public universities,” he said.

Touching on the issue of reliance on donor funding in an earlier plenary session, Dr Janet Adelegan, director of capacity building at the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use, or WASCAL, argued that capacity building was key to Africa’s ability to deal with climate change and other challenges. While acknowledging that finance was important, and that it was difficult to do “a lot” without money, she called for less dependence on external donors.

“We need to take our destiny in our hands and encourage our governments to invest in us,” she said.

Earlier this year WASCAL organised a workshop on climate change impact, mitigation and adaptation for scientists drawn from the ministries and government departments of environment, agriculture, water resources, meteorology, space and environmental protection agencies from WASCAL’s member states. While the workshops had a strong educational emphasis, they were also designed to promote linkages between research and practice, identify research priorities and build capacity for policy research.

Training graduates

The Ghana-based centre, established in 2012 by 10 West African countries with the support of the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, is known in the region for its climate change graduate studies programme which focus on the training of doctoral and masters students, and for its regular policy briefs aimed at the region’s policy-makers.

Adelegan said the research produced by the graduate students was highly relevant to problem-solving in West Africa and needed to be widely disseminated.

“Our graduates are producing evidence-based research. How do we ensure that this work is valued by our governments and implemented in their respective countries?”

Session moderator Professor Akpezi Ogbuigwe, director of the Advantages and Linkages Centre at Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Nigeria and former head of environmental education and training at the United Nations Environment Programme, noted that growing demand for higher education in Africa will necessitate the construction of new buildings to house higher education institutions – all of which would have an impact on the natural environment.

Arguing that higher education needed to transform itself to remain relevant, she called on universities to aspire to become model green campuses – “A place where the government can come to see the solutions offered by universities in practice, and then forced to support the solutions.”