‘Empower universities to tackle Africa’s challenges’

The capacity of higher education institutions across Africa must be enhanced to make them relevant to enabling the continent to fix the gaps that exist in its human resource development, President Adama Barrow of the Gambia said.

“As the African continent continues to redress its capacity gaps, particularly in the area of human resource development, nothing is more relevant than working towards building the capacity of African universities,” he said.

Opening the ministerial project steering committee meeting and the 8th Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence for Development Impact (ACE Impact) Regional Workshop in the Gambian capital, Banjul, Barrow said developing the universities will empower them to competently contribute to addressing the continent’s development challenges.

Skills centres to provide hands-on training

He said the Gambia’s need for adequate human capital equipped with entrepreneurial mindsets to match its development strides and aspirations is why the country has focused on establishing the fully fledged Centre of Excellence in Science, Technology and Engineering for Entrepreneurship.

“We cannot wait to graduate our first home-grown engineers who are able and ready to move and provide solutions to local and international industries,” Barrow said, adding: “This is a vision I share with all of my colleagues in West Africa and Djibouti.”

He said the reforms in his country put emphasis on hands-on education and training and, to do this, the ministry of higher education, research, science, and technology was setting up regional skills centres with the required curriculum for technical education and training.

In addition to setting up these skills centres, existing tertiary institutions are also enhanced, and opportunities in the applied sciences expanded at the new University of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology (USET).

“It is gratifying and quite reassuring that, already, USET has enrolled two cohorts of students in electrical, electronics, civil, and mechanical engineering,” he said.

Measures adopted to cultivate creativity

Professor Olusola Bandele Oyewole, secretary general of the AAU (Association of African Universities), said innovation and entrepreneurship remained pressing priorities to maximise the potential of Africa’s human capital.

“The higher education sector plays a critical role in enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship within the region,” he said.

“We are charged with the responsibility to cultivate creativity and harness innovativeness through quality training and excellent applied research. Cognisant of the gap in African universities to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, the ACE Impact has, indeed, demonstrated that the project understands lagging areas in the African higher education sector and has adopted laudable measures in addressing these challenges,” Oyewole said.

He said universities are at the helm of stimulating innovation and triggering creativity that will contribute to the production of new varieties of goods and services such as crops and sources of energy that can create millions of jobs. This will speed up reducing poverty, curb vulnerability, build the resilience of African economies, help achieve food security, fight disease and pandemics and improve health.

Stronger HE is a worthwhile investment

The World Bank’s resident representative for the Gambia, Feyi Boroffice, said education is the bedrock of social and economic growth. Building a stronger higher education sector is not only the key to Africa’s development but is also a worthwhile global investment in human capital.

“As we have seen globally, if done right, investments in skills development at both the pre-tertiary and tertiary levels and capacity-building in research have the potential to yield tremendous development benefits across various priority sectors and to lift, not only individuals but whole nations, out of poverty,” Boroffice said.

She acknowledged that STEM fields are arguably critical fields that would accelerate the socio-economic development of Africa. These sectors are still struggling with quality programmes and the ability to attract adequate numbers of students and researchers.

Boroffice said, currently, less than 25% of African higher education students pursue STEM-related career fields, most of them men. “This is why we are working alongside the various African governments, and particularly in the case of the Gambia, to help establish the new USET to train the next generation of Gambian engineers and technicians and provide them with the requisite technical and soft skills, including in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Successful networks formed through ACE Impact

“Our aspiration is that USET will become an institution of excellence and a reference in STEM education, within and outside the borders of the Gambia. The ACE Impact is a great model for leveraging regional approaches for promoting a quality, innovative, sustainable and collaborative higher education sector in Africa, complementing national efforts,” she added.

These projects have successfully served as a regional platform to form multidisciplinary networks that address some of Africa’s most pressing development challenges through highly relevant research in sectors such as health, climate change, food security, ICT, renewable energy, water and sustainable mining.

Boroffice said the development impact of the ACEs is evident in the results that they have produced beyond numbers, such as student enrolment and peer-reviewed published articles. “The centres are contributing to improving maternal and child health in rural communities, genomic sequencing and diagnosing infectious diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19, and developing high-yield, climate- and disease-resistant crops.”

She said: “To further accelerate, sustain and scale these gains will require the strong engagement of the private sector and considerations for more innovative, efficient and sustainable avenues for funding higher education and research, especially in the current tightening of fiscal space.”

The Gambia’s Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, Professor Pierre Gomez, said there was a need to establish the right partnerships and networks to help develop Africa’s higher education institutions to compete in the global market in research and innovation.

Through these efforts, Gomez said, “we can consolidate efforts to develop academic and research outputs that can help address youth employability, food security and endemic health concerns that have been stifling our respective economies for so long”.