Higher education sector blamed for low levels of state funding
The African taxpayer would be happy to prioritise the funding of the sector if universities went beyond the traditional mandate of teaching, research and outreach and also embraced innovation that would drive prosperity and solve pressing problems, said Professor Amon Murwira, Zimbabwe’s higher and tertiary education minister.
He was delivering an address at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM, on 26 October ahead of its conference, ‘Exploring future frontiers for global collaboration and partnership in the field of higher education and research in Africa’ in Harare in December.
Murwira noted that Zimbabwe had attempted to shift its education’s focus by redesigning it, and had started seeing increased innovations from universities and tertiary institutions.
Universities, he said, must shift from the education 3.0 model and move to education 5.0 model in which innovation, modernisation and industry are the key focus areas – if their real value in society is to be fully realised and appreciated.
According to Zimbabwe’s higher education strategy – aimed at positioning it as a middle-income country by 2030 – tertiary institutions must refocus their mission of teaching research and community service (education 3.1), to five core tasks, namely teaching, research, community service, but also innovation and industrialisation (education 5.0).
Murwira said, as long as the education system is designed to meet the needs of the people and universities show what their impact on society has been, funding will always be easy and rational.
“If the education system has done nothing to answer to people’s daily needs, then making the case for funding will be very difficult,” he said with reference to frequent accusations against governments over the underfunding of higher education.
“What our education needs is redesigning and, once this is done, it will become a catalyst in modernisation and industrialisation of our societies and the taxpayer will happily fund it.”
Murwira’s criticism follows similar attacks on the higher education sector in which politicians and their governments shift the blame for the underfunding of universities and their research back to the sector and underplaying the importance of ongoing funding to build human and infrastructure research capacity and favourable conditions in universities that can address societal needs.
Faulting higher education was also the message from African ministers of education, science and technology at a RUFORUM conference in Cotonou, Benin, at the end of 2021, when some of the speakers suggested that researchers are failing the ‘relevance test’ in solving national problems.
Yet, the funding of research, whether for societal benefit or not, remains a challenge. According to a presentation by the African Academy of Sciences in 2021, Africa spends about 0.45% of its GDP on research and development – significantly less than the global average of 1.7% and the African Union target of 1% – and Africa has fewer than 100 researchers per million people, 10 times fewer than the global average of 1,100 per million.
Undoing the ‘ivory tower’ approach
Murwira added that education systems in many countries were stuck in inherited colonial curriculums that were mainly “designed to produce a worker and nothing else”, hence the inability of many nations to come up with industries in order to create wealth and prosperity.
“Africa, with its current education models, produces graduates for the streets and we must get away from that,” he lamented.
Ideally, the design of curriculums should come from the needs of the people, hence the design of education should be with the ultimate aim of causing satisfaction of human wants via goods and services produced by industry, the minister added.
For that reason, there should never be mismatch between a people’s aspirations and the configuration of an education system, the professor told the webinar.
Challenging universities to do more, the minister noted that it was not possible for all research they did to come up with innovations, but noted that good ideas and innovations will always result in a prototype.
“It is true that not all research can result in an innovation, and that is allowed. However, it is a fact that all innovations are a product of research and this is where we should direct our focus,” Murwira added.
The “ivory tower” approach to their mission can be blamed on the 3.0 model of education widely practised in many countries, resulting in graduates with “heaps of papers”, but who cannot create employment.
In addition to redesign challenges, the need for greater collaboration between institutions of higher learning in Africa was highlighted again.
Africa’s education and research priorities must be focused on long-term and shared challenges that face its people, said Hambani Masheleni, acting head of the Department of Science and Technology at the African Union Commission.
It is on these priorities such as climate change, food security, disease and the environment that research collaborations between countries should be based, he noted.
Sadly, he observed, there was little intra-African research collaboration between universities or even individual researchers, with 90% of the partnerships taking place with non-Africans.
While many countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas engaged in heightened levels of collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic, the same or near same levels were not evident in Africa, he regretted.
Collaborations could also help improve African universities’ ranking which, he said, are “year-in-year-out bad”.
“Collaborations also facilitate ease of resource sharing. However, despite their advantages we Africans have to first address the issue of mobility of our people by opening up our borders,” he said.
This, he explained, will allow people to work in Africa and move freely as opposed to seeking opportunities for collaborating with outsiders.
While it was not in dispute that higher education needed to rebuild and remodel in order to adapt to changing landscapes, it also need to conform to “novel pedagogies”, to meet the needs of the new generation of youth, noted Professor Ekwamu Adipala, Ruforum’s outgoing executive secretary.
The COVID-19 pandemic two years had proven the need for people to come together and find solutions for common challenges, he noted.