Academic freedom – A key to building science capacity

African countries were challenged to take more deliberate steps to build adequate science and innovation capacity, including the guarantee of academic freedom, at the opening of the Sixth Africa Higher Education Week and Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Biennial Conference, held last week in Nairobi, Kenya.

Speaking at Tuesday’s official opening session, South African Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor said freedom of expression for scholars, academics and researchers was needed at all times to foster an environment for thought and innovation.

This would give academics the independence to critique and author independent documents for implementation by policy-makers, even when such reports were unpalatable to the state, she said.

‘The right environment’

“Many times our low capacity for science and innovation is not because we lack the human capital but because we do not create the right environment for universities and researchers to do their work,” the minister said.

She said academics they must not fear adopting evidence-informed positions, even when such actions risked evoking controversies, according to the minister.

Pandor said deliberate measures needed to be taken by policy-makers to build trust between themselves and universities if the poor state of scientific output in Africa is to improve significantly.

The conference – co-hosted by the University of Nairobi – had as its theme “Aligning African universities to accelerate attainment of Africa’s Agenda 2063”. The Biennial Conference of RUFORUM, a consortium of 105 African universities in 37 countries, is RUFORUM’s most comprehensive meeting for the diversity of stakeholders in both the agriculture and higher education sectors.

While observing that science, technology and innovation were at the core of attainment of the continent’s development blueprint Agenda 2063, Pandor said governments needed to increase funding for the sector as a fast step towards boosting scientific output.

They should also actively implement the Science, Technology and innovation Strategy for Africa 2024, for accelerated transition of African countries to innovation-led and knowledge-based economies, which is critical to the attainment of the 2063 continental agenda.

Increased funding

Additionally, governments must continue to strengthen national science councils whose work it is to ensure that science is mainstreamed in government development plans, she said.

However, this could only be achieved when governments increased funding for the sector, which currently remained low, she cautioned.

Scientists for their part must actively promote international partnerships in science, and pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative research initiatives, driven by concrete national science and innovation agendas, the minister said.

Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni echoed Pandor’s views when she told the gathering that African universities needed to be supported financially to produce the high quality human capital needed for development.

Museveni, who is also Uganda’s education and sports minister, said her country continued to make strides in youth training by increasing the numbers enrolling in universities and fostering gender parity in higher education institution enrolments.

TVET support

According to RUFORUM Executive Secretary Adipala Ekwamu, the regional agriculture and higher education body was broadening its focus from supporting doctoral and masters training to encompass technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

The aim, he said, was to put more emphasis on the broader “education value chains” as opposed to focusing on university education and graduate training.

The organisation was also shifting its focus to pay more attention to training young scientists, with a greater emphasis on mentorship, he said.

“Going forward, RUFORUM is committed to helping grow the pool of women scientists in Africa, by working to increase their numbers,” Ekwamu said.

Improved advocacy

The forum was working to foster change by championing the way universities engaged the public, fundraised and the way they planned their programmes.

“As part of this we are carrying out training for university communications and public relations officers with the aim of improving advocacy by universities.”

Institutions will also be encouraged and assisted in making longer terms plans, including for fundraising, to help them cope with the growing demand for higher education, which so far has not been matched by growth in infrastructure, the executive secretary said.

During the official opening ceremony, a total of seven eminent persons were recognised for their contribution to the growth of higher education and science on the continent. They included Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister for Solidarity, Family, Women and Children Professor Bakayoko-Ly Ramata, who was previously the minister for higher education, and immediate former African Union commissioner for human resources, science and technology, Dr Martial De-Paul Ikounga.

Nearly 20 education ministers and around 1,200 other delegates, including university heads, managers, academics, researchers and students, attended the event which ended on Saturday 27 October.