Calls for greater role for universities in policy-making

Are African universities being taken seriously enough as knowledge-producing institutions capable of developing research-based policies aimed at addressing the continent’s development challenges?

This was one of the questions raised at a plenary session during last week’s Sixth African Higher Education Week held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 22-26 October. The event was held concurrently with the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Biennial Conference, which focused on aligning universities to accelerate the continent’s developmental framework known as Agenda 2063.

“We need to act now and empower our universities to influence development policies that can expand current interventions in order to achieve Africa’s Agenda 2063,” said South African Minister of Higher Education, Naledi Pandor.

Pandor said that African universities should be empowered to build on their research capacity that will yield influence on evidence-based policy-making and implementation for the continent’s Agenda 2063.

“We appear to plan and plan and conceptualise every day; why can’t we act?” Pandor asked experts attending the session focused on catalysing the role of universities in influencing policy and setting development agendas.

Highlighting the disconnect between academia and both the private and public sectors, David Phiri, the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s representative to the AU Commission, said: “Governments and the private sector shy away from our universities, they don’t see them as centres of knowledge and interaction.”

This was despite the fact that universities have knowledge that can inform working policies. “We therefore need the universities to share their competencies with the public and private sectors to have workable policies that are targeted at solving Africa’s development problems,” Phiri said.

Zimbabwean Secretary for Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, Professor Fanuel Tagwira, said that there was a need to review higher education in Africa to make it relevant to the nations’ and the continent’s economic development goals. “We need to reform teaching and learning at our universities so that graduates can critically analyse issues in our societies and develop solutions,” said Tagwira.

Tagwira, who is the former vice-chancellor of the Zimbabwe-based Africa University, asked governments to acknowledge the key role of academia in knowledge creation which is a key driver of development. He urged countries to increase research funding to universities and avoid over reliance on donor funding as it may not be targeted towards the real problems affecting Africa.

Building the capacity of research in African universities would strengthen their contribution to policy-making and innovation, according to Malawi’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology Bright Msaka.

Msaka called for increased capacity building at postgraduate level for personal development, leadership and entrepreneurship. He challenged African universities to review their budgets and increase research funding internally before looking for further funding from external sources.

“What we need are competent graduates with leadership and entrepreneurship skills and not necessarily PhD holders,” said Msaka, adding that such competent graduates are important in the integration of policies.

The panelists said that there is need for relevant partnerships that are well coordinated to have resources especially directed at developing research infrastructure in the universities. They urged private and public sectors to make use of institutional structures such as universities and academies of arts and sciences in finding lasting solutions to the problems facing the continent.