Centres of excellence to bridge university-industry gap

Universities from Southern and Eastern Africa are looking to partnerships between 'African Centres of Excellence' and the private sector to help promote relevant and quality education.

At a two-day summit in Kigali convened under the auspices of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, last week, academic representatives from eight African countries discussed what they could do to ensure that African Centres of Excellence play a bigger role in facilitating research that can be translated into business concepts and service solutions in partnership with industry.

Funded by the World Bank, the Africa Higher Education Centres of Excellence Project is aimed at promoting regional specialisation among participating universities in Africa in areas that address regional challenges and strengthen the capacities of these universities to deliver quality training and applied research.

According to Professor Aaron Mweene from the University of Zambia, it was time to speed up social transformation through greater collaboration between the academy and the private sector.

Social transformation

“Universities at the moment do not have an opportunity to ask industries how they wish graduates to be trained; there is no window to approach industries. They are all looking at each other separately, so hopefully together we will speed up the social transformation we all dream of having,” he said.

Mweene said Zambia had recently established two centres of excellence, one of which specialises in infectious diseases and whose practical interventions with the support of the private sector had significantly reduced the transfer of infectious diseases.

According to Dr Papias Musafiri, Rwandan education minister, there was a need for greater community outreach and engagement by universities to enhance their impact on society.

“Outreach by universities is supposed to be the ultimate yardstick for measuring the success of a university in improving the livelihood of the people it serves,” said Musafiri.

While Rwanda hosts four centres of excellence – for energy, internet of things, education, and data science – government members emphasised that a lot still needs to be done to solve societal issues through partnerships with the private sector.

Successful partnership

However, Musafiri acknowledged the efforts of Carnegie Mellon University based in Kigali, which serves as one of the country’s centres of excellence, in partnering with the Rwandan tax services with the aim of raising domestic revenues.

“Of late, for example, we saw Carnegie Mellon University partnering with the Rwanda Revenue Authority, whereby they helped to set up an IT system to improve tax collections … That is leading through practical solutions and we are seeing other projects from the University of Rwanda with other private sector institutions … We are seeing the light at the end of tunnel,” he said.

According to Professor Alexandre Lyambabaje, IUCEA executive secretary, business communities need to be engaged earlier in planning, implementation, monitoring and review of curriculum, research projects and other income generating projects to build sustainable partnerships.

“The two parties can work towards the commercialisation of research and innovation, the development of service-oriented solutions and the establishment of customised training programmes. This will need high levels of commitment,” he said.

Business incubators

Lyambabaje said with the support of the World Bank they are looking at the establishment of business incubators which can provide internships and workplace exposure to students and graduates as early as possible.

“We asked centres of excellence to come with partners in industries to devise means and strategies to widen partnerships on top of equipping leaders of institutions to tackle societal issues,” he added.

Speaking on behalf of the World Bank, Dr Xiaoyan Liang who is an education specialist and team leader in centres of excellence in East and Southern Africa, called on universities to set clear priorities to allow for more funding.

“The benefits are quite evident. You may know that universities tend to be quite closed, but in that way, we cannot guarantee the graduates skills that we produce are necessary or needed by universities.

“Thus, it is very important to encourage them to open up their curricula and make sure staff are up to date in the latest technology and that graduates are trained in specific competencies required by the industry to get jobs,” she said.

Liang said partnerships would help to improve economic growth.

“If you are a university, you need to be able to understand the dynamics of the markets, the industrial needs first. Then you come back and develop relevant programmes. After graduation, universities will need to follow graduates to see how they are performing in the labour markets,” she said.