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Why African universities must be entrepreneurial

This essay by Alex Usher makes a powerful case for why and how African universities must change their mission and orientation in the light of…

This essay by Alex Usher makes a powerful case for why and how African universities must change their mission and orientation in the light of contemporary global realities. It was initially published under the title ‘Innovation in the absence of private partners.’ Enjoy it.

Alex Usher
Universities in developing countries were designed for a past age. In Africa and parts of Asia, that model is the colonial model: whatever the University of London (or the Sorbonne) was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities are set up to do now.
While universities in the developed world think of themselves as having missions of research and teaching and – less often – social responsibility as well, those in the global South and particularly in Africa, still often think of their job as being one of training future governing elites.
This type of education is some distance from being able to meet the needs of a modern knowledge-based economy. This is why for some time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge universities in the direction of modernisation.
In Anglophone Africa at least, the preference seems to be for something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies with more of an emphasis on knowledge creation. This has been a difficult shift to achieve and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.
Take undergraduate education. It’s easy enough to expand access by simply admitting more students, but providing a high-quality education is a different matter altogether. Having well-trained professors helps, but in Africa fewer than half of them hold doctorates.
Money for equipment is also crucial. In the absence of it, undergraduate students in science and engineering have very limited access to the tools of the trade they are supposed to have mastered by the time they obtain their degrees.
The well-worn complaint that African education is “too theoretical” isn’t just a case of academics being unwilling to modify their curricula – without equipment, a theoretical education is often the best that can be provided.
As for ensuring that degrees are market-focused, this is easier said than done.
In the West we assume that academics and employers are able to sit down occasionally and talk about labour force needs; but we also assume that the labour market functions in such a way as to reward graduates if they’ve been to a university with a strong reputation.
However, in countries where large swathes of the formal economy are dominated by government and parastatals, public sector HR managers aren’t always allowed to discriminate between candidates based on which university the student attended. The incentive to build up a good reputation for graduating employable students simply is not always there.
As for research agendas, it is not simply a matter of having money for equipment, but also materials, research dissemination, attending conferences – all the things that make research partnerships with more developed universities possible.
In some African flagship universities, close to 80 percent of money for research comes from foreign donors. That money is welcome, of course, but it means many institutional research programmes are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programmes.
Global development trends
Coming to grips with all these problems is a huge challenge on its own; but on top of all this are some fairly worrying global trends in development – specifically, the phenomenon identified by economist Dani Rodrik as “pre-mature industrialisation,” wherein countries are starting to de-industrialise at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity.
Briefly, the path to development taken by Korea and Taiwan are no longer open: no one is going to get rich through export-driven manufacturing. In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.
That’s not impossible for Africa – there are already nascent tech hubs in places like Nairobi – but it does place enormous pressure on countries to improve education and skills development so as to be able to develop services and knowledge-intensive products for export.
Simply put, when services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in societies with a major manufacturing focus.
Korea and China, for instance, could develop first and worry about higher education later; nowadays, not having good entrepreneurial universities means no development. It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.
Innovation universities
The way forward has in many ways been described by Dr. Calestous Juma of Harvard University, USA, who calls for the continent to develop new “innovation universities” which combine research, teaching, commercialisation and partnership with local business.
But to a large degree these efforts require governments to implement sensible national innovation strategies so that these institutions can operate in a supportive environment and find viable commercial partners. This, to put it mildly, is not often the case. And so universities are often finding themselves on their own.
In Africa at least, even when the nature of this challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but they also lack external entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialisation projects.
It’s a catch-22: how can you become an engaged, entrepreneurial university if there is no private sector with whom to partner?
And while it’s not impossible for universities over time to generate (through partnerships, licensing, spin-offs, etc) their own set of economic partners with whom to collaborate – in North America, San Diego, Stanford, Waterloo and the University of British Columbia all spring to mind – in Africa this is a far from well-trodden path.
In short, African universities are facing a whole new set of challenges while they are still getting to grips with the old ones. It’s an important structural challenge and international development and co-operation agencies need to respond to it. The future of the continent’s economic development depends on it.
Alex Usher is president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.
 

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