Harmonised higher education could be a game changer

The implementation of the proposal by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) that seeks to harmonise higher education systems in East Africa could be a much-needed game changer.

Professor Calixte Kabera, the newly elected chairperson of IUCEA for the next two years, spoke about the importance of a regional approach to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a recent interview with University World News.

Harmonisation could strengthen the links between academia and industry and help build the inter-country research networks needed to spur sustainable development.

A meeting held in Morocco in June also affirmed that scaling up industry and academia linkages could accelerate the continent’s realisation of the United Nations Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development, according to experts.

Speakers at the hybrid Pan-African Regional Scholarship and Innovation fund (RSIF) conference held in Morocco said that partnerships and collaborations between academia and industry are crucial for the sustainable development of Africa, yet these linkages are still very weak on the continent.

Collaboration between academia and industry are believed to be crucial for skills development, especially for faculty members and students at universities. To realise the IUCEA’s strategic plan for 2021-26, the association plans to collaborate with industry to support the region’s universities, research and innovation centres, and build capacity for regional research and innovation that strikes a balance between knowledge generation and policy innovation.

How should universities approach research?

According to Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, the chief executive officer of South Africa’s National Research Foundation, the science, technology and innovation links between industries are weak because of a lack of trust and of a shared end goal.

“The attainment of SDGs requires investments in research and innovation that involve a wide range of processes, especially industry participation,” said Nelwamondo. However, he believes low investment in research, especially by public institutions such as universities, was a major hold-up to the potential of science, technology and innovation to catalyse sustainable development in Africa.

Professor Murtala Sabo Sagagi, the director of the Centre for African Entrepreneurship Research and Training at Nigeria’s Bayero University, criticised the many African universities that are not shifting from their traditional roles of doing research for publications aimed at promotions.

“We need to transit and look at research from the problem-solving point of view,” Sagagi said, adding that universities should produce knowledge and practical solutions to the challenges facing Africa’s development. The lack of innovation from university research in Africa has forced the continent to spend billions to import technology, especially from developed countries, Sagagi said.

Professor Peter Onwualu, the acting president of the African University of Science and Technology in Nigeria, agrees: “You will expect that most of the technology used in Nigeria should come from the country’s research system, but this is not the case. The major problem is that the collaboration between academia and the industry is very weak.”

The training of PhDs at the universities, said Onwualu, demands the publication of papers but nothing beyond that, thus missing out on the innovations and solutions that are the essence of research. “Yet we are still grappling with insecurity that hinders development. This is a challenge that needs practical solutions from academia,” said Onwualu.

Innovation grants require industry partners

Cynthia Onyango, research and innovations grant officer at the Nairobi-headquartered International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, said that, despite the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund, or RSIF initiative collaborating with industry players, the long grant application process is a major drawback to the success of the partnerships.

“Innovation grants must have industry partners, especially for commercialisation purposes,” said Onyango.

Scientists and researchers from institutions of research and universities in Africa, several speakers said, could hardly come up with innovations that can be commercialised from their research work.

Sagagi urged African universities to make deliberate approaches to industry and invite them to their research in the quest to generate, transfer and exchange knowledge.

Onwualu agrees that there is a need for the formation of research teams from academia and industry whereby the industry players would propose the problems whose solutions academia should seek.

“We should not just have research problems for merely publishing papers. We need research that yields innovations to practically solve problems facing Africa,” Onwualu said.

Patricia Poku-Diaby, chief executive officer of Ghana-based cocoa processing company Plot Enterprise, said having scholars who are also industry players could help strengthen collaborations between academia and industry.

Poku-Diaby pointed out that, in Africa today, cocoa is still harvested manually, making it highly labour-intensive, despite the continent producing 80% of the world’s cocoa. This is an example of where universities should develop solutions to increase efficiency in production in Africa.

“The sustainability of industry is firmly rooted in the knowledge of scholars to guide enterprises to develop improved approaches to their businesses. Collaborations between universities and industry are of the essence if it translates effectively to addressing the challenges of the continent,” Poku-Diaby said.