Africa’s economic growth depends on an overhaul in HE – Report

The success of the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA, will depend on the capacities of universities in Africa and science academies to produce adequate and broad-based experts in technology, research and development, as well as leadership in innovation policies, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

In a comprehensive report, Existential Priorities for the African Continental Trade Area, UNECA is urging universities and other tertiary institutions on the continent to produce graduates that can make the African common market a reality.

“Education should have a practical component of innovation and entrepreneurship, which should be incubated among academia, industry and financial institutions,” stated the report that was co-authored by 14 leading scholars in trade, economics, law, science and engineering, led by Dr Stephen Karingi, the director of regional integration and trade division at UNECA, and Dr Francis Mangeni, a former senior fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town (UCT).

At issue is, whereas AfCFTA enjoys strong political will across the continent, it requires support of higher education systems whose graduates are inclined towards innovation, experimentation and continuous learning processes that would lead to adaptation, replication and scaling of industrial and manufacturing processes as well as agricultural enterprises.

But if that were to happen, the report says, African countries must increase funding on higher education and expenditure on research and development. Quoting statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNECA noted that there is no African country that is spending 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on research activities, which is the target that the African Union (AU) has set.

Missing link

According to Dr Chomora Mikeka, the director of science, technology and innovation at Malawi’s Ministry of Education and one of the co-authors of the report, the missing link for Africa has been research and development investment to establish and strengthen centres of excellence and specialisation for the necessary human capital development.

Mikeka, who is also an associate professor of physics at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, highlighted the need for African universities to start thinking of digitalisation as an academic pursuit that can accelerate Africa’s leapfrogging in all sectors of economic growth.

He suggested universities should increase the output of graduates who are qualified in advanced digital technologies such as mobile networks, the internet of things, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, data analysis, robotics and signal processing, which are currently in short supply.

For the AfCFTA agreement to translate into a common market, UNECA noted there should be curriculum change in the universities towards academic fields that represent tomorrow’s jobs.

The report noted there is an urgent need to purge the curricula and redesign the higher education system to meet the current and future needs of the manufacturing industry and other sectors.

The infrastructure dilemma

In their joint remarks in the report, Wamkele Mene, the secretary general of AfCFTA, and Dr Vera Songwe, the former executive secretary of UNECA, said challenges that threaten the emergence of an African free trade bloc could be overcome through transformation of higher education.

They argued that, if AfCFTA were to arise, universities should lead in finding solutions to practical challenges of implementation, low levels of industrialisation and poor infrastructure.

Dr Joseph Atta-Mensah, a principal policy adviser on macroeconomics and governance at UNECA and one of the authors of the report, noted that the current quality of Africa’s infrastructure is a major impediment to improved intra-African trade.

In order to establish a common market, Atta-Mensah said Africa needs safe, reliable, efficient, affordable and sustainable infrastructure systems to support economic activities and to provide basic social services, especially for the poor.

But, for the higher education institutions to find solutions confronting Africa’s economic integration and infrastructure development, UNECA said there should be academic reforms and a never-ending search for perfection. Universities should also continually use global academic rankings as one way of comparing themselves with their peers in other regions.

The report suggested that African universities could also benefit from twinning with well-performing universities globally, a move that would help African students to get some of the high-quality education on offer in the world.

Stressing the need for high-quality education in Africa, the report stated that, historically, higher education has been at the forefront of new technologies. This provides more impetus to African universities to prioritise the teaching of science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics and biology in order to build the sound technological bases essential to socioeconomic development.

In that context, Mangeni called on African universities to assist African countries to reverse their relations with the developed world as suppliers of low-value, unprocessed raw materials and importers of high-value, finished commodities and buyers of high technology-content products.

Further, Mangeni urged universities and centres of excellence in the continent to encourage the creation of academic and business partnerships whose mission would be to establish vibrant technology and innovation, industrialisation, financing and business leadership forums.

He noted that the main aim of African universities should be that of churning graduates with the capacity to turn ideas, skills, passions and inventions into marketable goods, a sure way of helping African countries turn from relying on the extraction and exporting of unprocessed commodities.

Visa requirements harm HE

Amid efforts to hasten African integration through the common market, UNECA noted there is a need for urgent implementation of a relaxed visa regime that would allow almost free movement of higher education students and researchers between African countries.

According to Alan Hirsch, an emeritus professor of development policy and practice at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, UCT, and one of the authors of the report, visa free-visiting rights should also be accorded to academics and other professionals in order to create a continent-wide education movement to support AfCFTA and the AU’s Agenda 2063.

Hirsch contemplated a situation whereby economists, lawyers, business formation strategists and investors would be allowed easy movement in different countries to establish business alliances and facilitate negotiations on competition, investments, intellectual property and digital trade.

The agreement establishing AfCFTA as an ambitious trade pact was brokered by the African Union in 2018 with the aim of removing barriers to intra-African trade and progressively becoming a single market for goods and services in Africa.

But, whereas almost all African countries have signed the protocol, challenges remain in terms of poor road and rail links, political unrest and excessive border bureaucracy while some countries have not relaxed immigration policies for fear of losing out to competitive neighbours.

Even then, although AfCFTA can open business opportunities and possibly holds the key to Africa’s economic integration, what is in doubt is whether African universities would be able to contribute to the task of making more than 1.3 billion people in Africa realise their expectations.

The issue is that, while there are networks of African universities and various professional bodies such as engineering, most of those universities are underfunded while technical cadres in the continent have little or no funding dedicated to networking and cooperation activities.

“The capacity of such professionals to travel, communicate and participate in innovation activities cross Africa is highly constrained,” stated John Ouma-Mugabe, a professor of science and innovation policy at the Graduate School of Technology Management, University of Pretoria, and one of the authors of the report.

But, as Mangeni pointed out, lessons learned in Singapore indicate that there are no shortcuts to development in that a sound education in technology, innovation and applied research is a pre-requisite to economic progress, and Africa is not an exception to the rule.