Universities need to promote development through science

The African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar, Senegal, on 10-12 March 2015 made a concerted effort to build a general consensus on what role Africa's universities should play in African development and society.

The summit agreed on 10 principles, among them the promotion of world-class research and innovation; access, equity and accountability; institutional autonomy and academic freedom; and strengthening linkages to society, economy and employers.

It remains a huge challenge as to how African universities’ leaders can translate those principles into plans, policies and programmes and implement them effectively.

Apart from that continental forum, the role and place of Africa's universities have never been the subject of any national public conversation or debate. Yet a critical examination of the African context suggests African universities must play the role of development partner and improve human conditions on the continent.

This perspective is not an endorsement of the metaphor of African universities as supermarkets, requiring them to fulfil multiple roles and functions for which they are either ill-equipped or lack the necessary resources to execute effectively.

The failure of African universities to perform the role of development partner would lead to a questioning of their legitimacy or relevance in the 21st century. From our perspective, internal African development partners consist of government, industry, university and community groups.

Nonetheless, the university occupies a unique position in that it is the centre of enlightenment and a neutral assembler of a variety of specialists whose expertise could be harnessed for solving development issues.

Scientific culture

For the purposes of this article, scientific culture refers to a mode of life (patterns of thinking, attitude and behaviour) in which scientific principles or values are adapted or appropriated. Scientific culture may manifest at the individual, institutional or societal level. Integrating these elements of scientific culture into mainstream African life is a crucial catalyst for African development.

Underdevelopment is more than a lack of resources and expertise, faulty policies and programmes, and inefficient political structure. It is also caused by bad attitudes, ineffective formal education, unproductive human resources and unprogressive beliefs and customs.

Adoption of a scientific culture has the potential to stunt religiosity, mythology and superstition and pave the ways to solving developmental problems.

Ten elements of scientific culture are highlighted below, along with how African universities could promote them internally and externally:

  • • Evidence in the form of concrete words, figures, objects or pictures is crucial to any decision-making process or judgement. Evidence must be verifiable by independent individuals or entities. This means eliminating evidence emanating from sources such as dreams, divine revelations, guesswork or speculation.

  • • Information is immensely treasured and for this reason effort, time and money are spent to properly collect, store and preserve it for current and future retrieval.

  • • A high premium is placed on literature in comparison to oraliture (oral literature); though oraliture has a measure of importance when combined with literature in parliamentary sessions, teaching, advertising and courts of law.

  • • Everything is considered transitory until better ways, methods, techniques or systems are invented, discovered or designed.

  • • Ideas are greatly valued in and of themselves, not because of their technical or social feasibility. Ideas that are not false are those supported by measurable, verifiable data, not common sense.

  • • What cannot be measured, verified or quantified does not exist. Measurement, verification or quantification entails comparison so there are no absolutes.

  • • Nothing is sacred; everything is subject to persistent questioning, inquiry, data collection, analysis, evaluation and logical reasoning.

  • • There is no higher authority to appeal to for confirmation or judgement on what has been done except the verifiable work of others and any available data.

  • • There is no certainty but what is most probable at a specific time.

  • • Human beings have absolute responsibility to improve the conditions of their existence and to blame themselves for failing to do so.

Having highlighted the salient characteristics of scientific culture, how could African universities promote it?

Techniques for promoting scientific culture

There are many ways for African universities to promote scientific culture within their campuses and also in the wider society. Thus the suggestions below are not exhaustive:

Modelling scientific culture

Leaders of African universities should demonstrate scientific culture in their organisations through their attitudes, thinking, actions and relationships.

For example, a university chancellor who sets up a committee of two professors and three business persons to collect and analyse data and make recommendations about what the university could do to train innovative entrepreneurs in a country is practising scientific culture.

Similarly, a pro-vice-chancellor who is persistently critiquing the university governance model for the purpose of improving it is not suffering from an intellectual delirium. Instead, such a leader is engaged in the act of continuous improvement – an important component of a scientific culture.

On the contrary, a pro-vice-chancellor of a university who merely implores the university community to pray and fast for divine intervention to improve the university finances is not practising a scientific culture. In fact, that leader is not even practising Christianity, whose theology requires adherents to combine faith and works.

Teaching and learning

University teaching and learning presents one of the greatest opportunities to infuse elements of a scientific culture to transform learning activities for students so they can become competent in scientific culture.

It is an observable fact that the average African university graduate is resistant to change; they continue in their unprogressive ways of life despite their level of education.

However, generally the teaching and learning of sciences in African universities are not aimed at improving Africa’s society and economy. Instead, they primarily focus on regurgitating information, passing competitive internal examinations and awarding certificates.

Nevertheless, cultivating a love for the sciences is crucial to promoting scientific culture. One cannot embrace a scientific culture and reject the sciences at the same time.

The fact is, scientific culture borrows heavily from the sciences and adapts them into its modus operandi, but allowing students ample opportunities to experience the process of knowledge construction via discussion, research, questioning, critiquing and data analysis has a greater potential for embedding a scientific culture.

Promoting a scientific culture through teaching and learning in African universities should challenge the age-old model of the lecturer or professor as the sole custodian and transmitter of knowledge, whose main job is to spoon-feed students with pre-packaged knowledge. Students are then required to be passive consumers of the knowledge fed to them.

On the contrary, the adoption of a scientific culture as the foundation of pedagogy requires students to be active learners, persistently analysing, questioning, critiquing and researching whatever is transmitted to them as knowledge or observed in their environment.

Research production and dissemination

Research is the process of collecting and analysing data through observation, experimentation, interview and literature review. The purpose is to solve a specific problem, offer directions for the future, evaluate existing practices, test out a theory or intervention model or provide information for decision-making.

Undergraduates should be required to take an introductory course in research practice as part of their programme. In addition, they should write research essays and present them to both their instructors and peers for feedback.

Lecturers and professors must also engage in research. Owing to the heavy course loads of most lecturers and professors at African universities, collaborative research should be fostered. Two or three lecturers or professors teaming up to do a piece of research for a year would minimise any stress that research production could bring them.

Universities should find creative ways for lecturers and professors to disseminate their research findings at local and national levels.

Backward integration

Through their community service role universities should support the teaching and learning of science in primary, junior and senior secondary schools. Support could take the shape of interventionist-enriched science programmes, targeting students to develop scientific cultural values. Such support would enable students to master the fundamentals of science for academic progression, for career preparation and for life.

Teachers, particularly those in primary schools, could also benefit from a science professional development programme for effective teaching and assessment.

Appropriate professional development could assist teachers to instil scientific cultural values in students before they graduate from school.

National advocacy for scientific culture

Advocacy involves formulating arguments, defence or recommendations in favour of or in opposition to a specific position or issue.

A good illustration is a department head of a university demanding evidence about the relationship between corporal punishment and the motivation for learning excellence in African primary schooling. Another example is the departmental head of pharmacology at a university arguing that packaged herbal medication must include standard dosage recommendations.

Advocacy for scientific cultural values or principles could be done through radio, TV and newspaper interviews, writing opinion articles in newspapers, magazines and social media outlets.

Government-university relations

Government-university relations present an opportunity for African universities to promote scientific culture. This relationship has always been the government providing funding and laying down organic regulations for universities.

However, it should be a two-way street with the university offering research reports or recommendations, and scholarly documents to the government or agreeing to help the government to solve specific issues through research.

Without being requested, a pro-vice-chancellor of a local university presented a study to government detailing the negative impact on teaching and learning of increased student enrolment at the university. Another example is the chancellors of four universities presenting a study to government highlighting major strategies that could be implemented during the Christmas season to reduce road and highway fatalities.

In fact, a culture should be created where government would always look to universities for research guidance and insight on local, national and continental issues.

National discourse

African universities should get involved in national discourses instead of isolating themselves. By national discourse, we mean issues that affect the lives of a significant number of people and gripping the attention of a nation such that they dominate discussion in newspapers, social media, radio, television and oral gossip.

National discourse is another opportunity to promote scientific culture. For instance, African university leaders could submit to government a critical analysis of how productivity in state-owned enterprises could be continuously improved to avoid the perennial mass lay-off of workers. In addition, such research could further be used to get funding from government to expand the study.

African universities could promote scientific culture provided they maintain an intimate relationship with African society and its economy. This does not suggest political involvement or taking a political position on national issues. It entails doing research and scholarly analysis on national issues and communicating the findings to communities and societal leaders for policy-making or guidance.

It also involves identifying the current and future needs of society and its economy and determining how best it could contribute towards fulfilling those needs. It is about producing human resources that are relevant to societal needs.

African universities would be development partners if they were able to perform these functions. Consequently, our clarion call to African universities to promote scientific culture internally and externally is an integral part of their development role.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant in Canada. Dr Francis Ahia is director of the transitional year programme, University of Toronto, Canada.