Partnerships – The key to harnessing HE innovation

Against the backdrop of “formidable” challenges facing African universities in their roles as drivers of development and core-creators of knowledge-based economies, regional and global partnerships can help in fully harnessing higher education innovation in Africa, a recent regional higher education conference heard.

Speaking at the Sixth African Higher Education Week and Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Biennial Conference session on “Unravelling university, community and private sector engagement for agriculture transformation in Africa,” Dr Hendrina Doroba, manager of the education and skills division at the African Development Bank, said universities possess the capacity to improve the agriculture sector on the continent to support food security and promote economic growth.

“African universities could play a leading role in promoting the development of agricultural value-addition to all agricultural commodities. With the right set of skills, allied with industry and manufacturing, the sector can contribute to strong growth and create wealth throughout the economy,” said Doroba.

Multiple challenges

She said among the challenges facing university education in Africa were competition between the functions of research, education and community service; tensions between a traditional academic orientation and the demand for problem-solving research; the challenges of constructing a balanced higher education system; poor relationships between universities and society; and navigating the role of knowledge creator and distributor and technological and social innovator.

“These concerns pose a formidable challenge to universities as centres of knowledge creation and sharing. Therefore regional and global partnerships are important in fully harnessing higher education innovation in Africa,” said Doroba.

Statistics revealed during the “State of university education in Africa” session indicate that universities in Africa are still poorly funded in respect of research and innovation. Enrolment rates in the sector are still relatively low, as are research outputs. Furthermore, the enrolment landscape is dominated by humanities and social sciences rather than science and technology. There are also inequities in gender, social class and geographic location. Another challenge is aging professors, combined with low generational renewal.

According to Doroba, regional and global partnerships will help shape Africa’s agricultural innovations and support industrialisation.

“The effective participation of all stakeholders is central to enhancing higher education innovation. Mechanisms for the involvement of regional and global partners including NGOs and international organisations need to be strengthened,” she said

Professor Adipala Ekwamu, executive secretary of RUFORUM, said universities need to invest in research quality and output, and put emphasis on policy-oriented, problem-solving research.

“This can only be achieved through the establishment of new programmes, changes in the current education systems, resource mobilisation, human and institutional capacity development, and through market-oriented collaboration with industry.”

Learning from others

Experts from South Korea said African countries, through higher education, can learn lessons from the experience and expertise of Korea.

Professor Tai Cheol of Chungnam National University, South Korea, a former vice-president of the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage, said lessons from industrialised countries show that higher education plays a key role in agricultural transformation leading to the economic growth of a country.

It took South Korea just 19 years to industrialise, growing from a per capita GDP of US$79 in 1960 to over US$30,000 in 2017.

“African countries will do well to learn from the successful land reforms Korea undertook in order to boost industrialisation, entrepreneurship and empowerment of the farmers,” said Tai.