Call to develop research-intensive universities in Africa
In a public lecture at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria on the role of universities in the transformation of society, Fonn said that universities are in a unique position to provide innovative solutions to challenges facing the continent, but insisted that, if universities are to be the engine of development, research must be approached in a trans-disciplinary manner.
The lecture, titled ‘The role of academia in society – a public health perspective’, delivered on 19 May 2023 was organised by the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) in collaboration with the University of Ibadan.
“If we want to be the engines of development, then we have to be trans-disciplinary in our approach. This does not only involve bringing multiple disciplines to work together but to engage with all stakeholders, including communities who have an interest in the research area to define the problem, design solutions, and then [ensure] the outcomes and benefits are shared. This, then, helps universities contribute to development and fostering equality,” Fonn said.
Fonn, who is the co-director of CARTA, said that erroneous policies have been an impediment to the development of research-intensive universities in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the largest regions in the world with a population of over a billion people, she said, but tertiary enrolment is at under 10%. The global average is 38%.
The low enrolment figures, she said, can be traced back to the colonial period when Africa was urged to invest heavily in primary education, with investment in tertiary education seen as an unnecessary luxury and this has had dire consequences for research and the development of Africa.
She cited that, as a result, in South Africa, public expenditure for tertiary students fell from US$6,800 per student in 1980 to US$1,200 in 2002, a decrease of more than 80%. “Many tertiary institutions shut down and were and still are underfunded … these colleges were shut down at the very time that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was soaring, leading to fewer healthcare workers. Our human resource for health workers in South Africa has not recovered to this day … this policy was flawed,” she said.
Merit has to count
But, even with faulty policies, Fonn said the culture of giving incompetent people jobs in public and private institutions in Africa coupled with non-functioning systems are the main challenges facing development in Africa.
“We don’t always give the jobs – be it teaching or as heads of institutions – to the best candidates, as appointments are not always based on merit. We need to change this. We have had incompetent and corrupt leaders while the competent have been stuck in dysfunctional systems. We expect people to deliver when they are not surrounded by well-functioning systems.
“To have a good higher education system, you need a well-functioning education system, from pre-school to higher level. But, to be effective in higher education, you need a functional support system that repurposes rules and regulations, good human resource and information technology systems, and functioning infrastructure.”
Africa can do right
But, despite this, Fonn said there are centres of excellence across Africa, implying that the continent has the ability to do right. She urged African universities to embrace intra-Africa collaboration and promote differentiated teaching, saying it allows countries to meet a variety of national needs and allows them to offer a range of degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level. These degrees, she said, will help produce graduates who can work in government, NGOs, and in business.
“We also need research-intensive universities to do research and research training. These research-intensive universities produce our PhDs and should be home to African and to international post-doctoral students. Such graduates will be the people who will continue to renew our research-intensive universities. They will also staff all our universities and technical and vocational education and training institutions, besides taking up many other roles in society.
“Every country needs some kind of national research system, a system that comprises universities, public research institutions, governmental and non-governmental research and research investments from the public and private sectors. Without this, a country cannot participate in the global knowledge economy. Participating in the global knowledge economy is important as well, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic revealed that African countries need to urgently manufacture a high range of goods, such as vaccines, locally. That we have to provide social safety to our populations; we have to build reliable infrastructure, functional health systems and we need to reduce inequalities within and between countries and offer the young African population a future in which they can use their time in fulfilling ways. They have to feel that they have a stake here in Africa. That they can want to and make a contribution in Africa.”
The bottom line
According to Fonn, the bottom line is that Africa needs to develop. “And this is why Africa has to participate in the global knowledge economy. There are questions about development that no one else is better placed to answer than Africans in African universities.”
Developed countries have invested heavily in the entire education system, from primary to tertiary. This is essential, because it is the way for individuals to have a better life and for nations to develop, she said.
She argued that, with research-intensive universities, Africa will find solutions to its challenges. For instance, in the health sector, the development of vaccines will help reduce deaths and save the lives of children.
This, however, will work effectively with trans-disciplinary research collaboration. “We need the economists to indicate to governments that, even if it’s costly to invest in vaccines, the benefits outweigh the losses. It matters that we have social scientists and philosophers that can make a link between human rights and access to vaccines. This is the stuff of research-intensive universities.”
Fonn also called for research collaboration that ensures that those in Africa are at the centre of research work to ensure the results are in the context of Africa and promote institutional capacity, such as what CARTA does to support research training.