University partnership taps lessons from South Korea

Four African universities have partnered with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology or KIST to promote applied science and technology research.

The partnership agreements were signed on 12 September at a workshop organised jointly by KIST and the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology or PASET, which is led by African governments and facilitated by the World Bank.

The four universities are Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire), African University of Science and Technology (Nigeria), Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania) and Université Gaston Berger (Senegal). All of them are participating in PASET’s flagship five-year initiative known as the PASET Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund or RSIF.

According to Dr Sajitha Bashir, education practice manager for Eastern Africa at the World Bank, the partnership primarily aims to promote joint research and human resource exchanges between KIST and the participating universities and is intended to enhance their research and PhD programmes in applied sciences and technology.

The ultimate goal, she said, is to build research capacity in African universities by tapping the experiences of fast-growing economies like South Korea and their universities that have excelled in applied sciences, engineering and technology programmes.

According to World Bank figures, less than a quarter of students in African universities are enrolled in science, engineering and technology programmes, despite a rapidly growing need for home-grown professionals in industrial, agricultural and health sectors.

“Today, the region is home to 13.4% of the world’s population but contributes barely 1.1% of scientific researchers. This dearth of researchers and high quality faculty to train them is preventing Sub-Saharan Africa from taking advantage of its enormous economic opportunities,” said Bashir.

Skills gap

PASET was created to address this gap by bringing together African governments and the private sector, as well as new partners who have been investing heavily in Africa, such as South Korea.

The final agreements between KIST and the African universities focus on a 'sandwich programme' for the PASET-RSIF scholars studying at the four RSIF host universities.

The programme will allow them to conduct part of their research at KIST where they will be hosted for up to two years and where they will be co-supervised. It will also pursue collaborative research and development projects with the host universities in the scholars’ fields of study, and potentially undertake curriculum improvement and faculty exchange or training projects.

After completing at least one year of studies at the host university, the RSIF host university faculty will nominate those students who meet pre-set criteria for the sandwich programmes.

The student, along with his or her supervisor at the RSIF host university and a co-supervisor at KIST, will then decide the student’s research project plan. KIST will provide regular updates on each student’s performance, and the RSIF implementation unit (based at the Association of African Universities) will follow up to ensure progress. KIST has waived all tuition for the students, and PASET will pay for each student’s stipend.

The initiative will be of significance to higher education in Africa and to socio-economic development of the continent given that, while foreign direct investment across Sub-Saharan Africa has grown, its economy remains heavily dependent on exporting raw commodities, said Bashir.

“Revenue from natural resources has been growing for many African countries, but in order to sustain this growth there needs to be a paradigm shift which equips a new generation with the skills to transform raw commodities to higher value products to compete in global markets,” she said.

According to Bashir, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has a special focus on Africa, and emphasises science, technology and capacity development as key to achieving the continent’s sustainable development goals. This is also part of the core principles in Africa’s own common position on its post-2015 development agenda.

Future sustainability

Bashir said while the partnership will be focusing on four universities selected through competitive processes, there is a plan to select more RSIF host universities in the future. “We are also in discussions with other potential partner institutions – multinationals with R&D offices or labs, research institutes and other global universities with high ranking PhD research programmes,” she said.

Future PASET funding will come from African governments, the private sector and other bilateral and multilateral donors.

Bashir said the World Bank viewed the partnership as a long term relationship with KIST, even though the current agreement has a five-year life span.

“Its sustainability is dependent on the performance of scholars sent to KIST, the KIST researchers’ experience with these students, and the kind of support systems in place for students’ welfare during the sandwich programme,” she said.

The bank is working towards setting up a permanent fund that will support such partnerships in the future.