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Past Editorial : August 2010

August 2010

Higher Education and Science & Technology in Africa: Tenuous Links, Emerging Trends and Neglected Initiatives?

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.

 

Introduction

I recently attended the Second Science with Africa Conference jointly organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission and many others in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 23 to 25 June, 2010. The conference was attended by more than 500 participants from more than 50 countries around the world that included scientists, researchers, representatives of bilateral and multilateral development partners, NGOs, higher education and science and technology ministries.

Nearly a decade ago, I took interest in documenting the number of African countries with ministries of science and technology (and higher education) in Africa. According to that study, more than 15 countries had such ministries in 2005. (It was on the basis of that study that I urged the Ethiopian Government—at three national events—to establish such a ministry. The Ethiopian government has indeed established a new Ministry of Science and Technology in 2006—without, however, a higher education portfolio.)

This editorial will largely reflect on the dynamics of science and technology and higher education development in the region on the basis of the dialogue at the conference and interest in this area.

 

Advancing Science and Technology: Tenuous Links with Higher Education?

Building a strong capacity in science and technology without robust universities may probably be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. This is more so in Africa where universities in the region remain the major, if not probably the sole, bastions of science and technology.  At this otherwise interesting and engaging conference, this relationship between higher education and science and technology however appeared to many as being tenuous. The role of African universities in the advancement of science and technology in the region received rather limited emphasis. Some of the opening speeches, presentations and draft recommendations barely mentioned higher education. In fact, one of the main opening speeches did not even mention higher education at all!

This prompted a concerned representative of the African Development Bank to forcefully underscore higher education as a “bed rock” for the advancement of science and technology. That observation also prompted a  representative of the African Union Commission to stress on the emerging PanAfrican University initiative whose five thematic networks are dominated by science and technology (more on this later).

The Conference made a conscious effort to raise the level of discussion by casting away “basic and introductory issues” that were part of earlier communiques and recommendations of the Science in Africa—1 Conference. It is probable that this effort may have indirectly constrained the opportunity for enunciating the inherent dynamics between higher education and science and technology.

However, higher education and science and technology are so inextricably linked, emphasizing these deep relationships repeatedly would not be considered redundant. Moreover, as profiles of conference participants change, assuming considerable “institutional memory” and “basic and introductory issues” may have an unfavorable outcomes. It is therefore conceivable that what appeared to be a tenuous link between higher education and science and technology at the conference may be attributed to the, otherwise smart, conference convening approach.

It is of particular importance to Africa to ensure that the bond between higher education and science and technology remains a solid one, because higher education is the central front for building a successful science and technology capacity in the region. For instance, the conference agreed to establish a regional scientific body which will develop a collective African position for the next climate meeting as a sequel to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. As the heartland of knowledge hub on climate lies in many African universities, it is expected that their ecologists, botanists, zoologists, hydrologists, geologists, and meteorologists play a prominent role. Thus future conventions will, hopefully, feature the strong bond between the two better.

  

Hosting Higher Education and Science & Technology Under One Roof: Raison d’etre

Producing a high-level expertise to create, access, adapt, consume, and disseminate knowledge has become critical for national development. Hence integrating science, technology and higher education as a national knowledge development strategy for a sustained and meaningful social and economic transformation is gaining more traction.

Institutions, departments, and expertise are reorganized, reshuffled and streamlined to capitalize on their collective strength, quality and vigor to assume more efficiency and build competitiveness. The repositioning and reconstitution of ministries and organizations is a right step in the realization and enhancement of these underlying objectives. As a consequence, nearly a third of the African continent (as noted above), many countries in Latin America, and others in Asia have integrated their higher education and science and technology bodies under one roof.

Tertiary institutions in Africa have shown considerable growth in the last decade: the number of public and, more so, private institutions has grown many folds; the enrollment figures have soared; the means of delivery have expanded and evolved; the issues of quality and accreditation have become more complex and complicated. On the other hand, the primary and secondary education sub-sectors of many countries have also shown massive expansions largely guided by the UN Millennium Development Goals. Concurrently, advancements in science and technology generate massive amount of knowledge and information with all consequent opportunities, potentials and challenges to nations.

These unprecedented external and internal developments necessitate the need to establish a dedicated national body as Ministry of Science and Technology and Higher Education. Subsequent similar and related conventions may help promote this emerging trend of establishing such a body in the region.

 

Building Endowment: Commendable Initiative

Several articles on this forum and International Higher Education have been featured on the need to and importance of establishing endowment funds for consolidating higher eduction in Africa. It was therefore with deep interest and high hopes that the establishment and launch of the Africa Science and Technology Endowment Fund at the Conference was welcomed.

The launch event, one of the main highlights of the conference, emphasized the need for businesses, business tycoons and other wealthy Africans, both inside and outside the continent, to contribute to the Fund to help build strong science and technology systems in the region. The Conference named some billionaire Africans in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Sudan and urged many others to contribute to the fund.

At the launch event the emphasis on raising endowment funds focused mainly on the business community in Africa. And yet, in addition to the business community and wealthy citizens and diaspora communities, the multinational corporations that operate in the region as well as the various development partners need to be actively drawn to the effort (See Editorial, December, 2009).

 

Ministry of Science and Technology: “Step Child” Ministry?

Several participants and presenters noted a lack of recognition and “clout” of ministries of science and technology on the pecking order of national ministries. Senior science and technology officials of governments recounted their continued difficulties in raising support for their ministries due to lack of immediate and “tangible” deliverables. Whereas the chronic challenges of funding higher education in Africa are well documented, it appears that the problem seems to run as deep, if not deeper, for such ministries and bodies.

The conference observed that many countries in Africa lack an integrated national science and technology policy. The total number of countries in Africa with such a policy is no more than 20. Participants reckon that a lack of (popular) support for the sector may have been attributed to, among others, the absence of such a policy. Furthermore, it was suggested that close interactions between science and technology ministries in the region may help raise the profile of such bodies nationally.

 

Establishing a Pan African University: The Burden of Experience

Spearheaded by the African Union Commission, the region is in the midst of establishing “five thematic networks of centers of excellence” on the continent. As part of the PanAfrican University Project, the Commission has already identified three of the five hosts in Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria; and it is reported at the conference that the dialogue on the remaining two was well underway.  According to a staff at the Africa Union Commission, decisions as regards to “who gets what is a political as well as a technical matter” in which comparative advantages of existing institutions are examined with an eye on sub-regional representations at the direction of the Bureau of the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF).

It is to be recalled that the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) that declared the African Renaissance nearly a decade or so ago—with considerable fanfare and excitement—was to launch similar initiatives. The initiative was intended to establish five centers of excellence in the five corners of the continent with an estimated 5 billion USD. The state of play of this initiative and its relationship to the new effort of establishing the PanAfrican University however remains unclear.

The African Institute for Science and Technology (AIST) of the Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa (NMI) is yet another related initiative. It was intended as a global effort to foster economic growth and development through the promotion of excellence in science and engineering and their applications. NMI was also aiming to develop four AIST campuses in four corners of the continent. The state of this, once high-profile, initiative is not that obvious either.

The vision and mission of a Pan-African University Project may be idealistic. But some skepticism surrounds its development largely due to several past similar and related initiatives that are yet to bear fruit—even emerge from the ground. To be fair, according to the opening remarks of the director of the Human Resources and Science and Technology of the Commission to the COMEDAF IV Bureau Meeting on June 15, 2010, “the Pan African University is not another University in Africa. Rather, the Pan African University project is a project for promoting excellence in some existing universities with the aim of focussing [sic] on areas and fields that [are] of tangential implications for African development”. The Commission is not unaware of such skepticism surrounding this project and notes that “Such [skepticism] is not unexpected of such a new initiative which [sic] terrain has not been tested. We however hope that the COMMEDAF [sic] Bureau will be able to further examine this initiative and guide us appropriately on the way ahead.”

As the Commission is expecting guidance from COMEDAF, the African higher education community also anticipates persuasive explanations on the virtue of launching a new project when similar and related, well recognized and accepted, ones abound. The Commission and COMEDAF will hopefully respond to these lingering questions of the (higher education) community in the region and elsewhere—openly and effectively.

Like others before it, the force behind establishing the Pan-African University today is considerably powerful. Its sustainability and, more so, impact may, however, depend on sustained political support beyond terms of incumbents, institutional support across the board, competent leadership and stable management, clear mandate and measurable goals, reliable financial, logistical and technical resources, extensive regional and international networks, and, moreover, genuine “grassroots” support.

 

Conclusion

In building the region’s knowledge system, African leaders and policy makers should forcefully underscore the “natural” bond between higher education and science and technology. It is simply inconceivable, at least in the African context, to plan to advance science and technology without a robust higher education system in the region.

Furthermore, the urge to establish new initiatives, especially when similar or related ones exist, needs to be restrained to conserve resources, time, and energy; expedite results; avoid confusion; and, moreover, minimize lost opportunities. The culture of building on what already exists, instead of establishing competing initiatives, needs to be vigorously fostered in the region. To this end, as emerging initiatives are conceived and planned, existing ones need to be carefully and professionally scrutinized—and, equally importantly, widely and persuasively communicated.

This editorial is a longer essay building on a blog post by the same author available at The World View.

 

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