How private companies can help African universities produce fewer civil servants but more scientists

A civil servant or an engineer?
A civil servant or an engineer?
Image: (REUTERS/Omar Faruk (SOMALIA)
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Despite Africa’s rising economic power, a damaging divide remains between business communities and scientists on the continent. Technical knowledge is not keeping pace with economic growth, and business leaders in Africa regularly complain about the lack of local candidates with technical skills. In fact, the most recent ‘Annual Global CEO survey’ found 90% of CEOS in Africa are highly concerned about the low availability of key competences.

The problem is not just a lack of skills, but a lack of appropriate skills. Employers surveyed across 36 African nations as part of the African Economic Outlook pointed to the mismatch in technical and industry relevant skills being more important than the lack of skills overall.

Take the agriculture sector, arguably Africa’s most important industry. Currently the sector contributes 13% of the continent’s GDP, yet only 2% of African students study it at university. This is actually the same amount as in Europe, where agriculture contributes a little over 1% to the GDP of its nations. Most worryingly, Africa owns 60% of the world’s uncultivated land suited for crops, but doesn’t have the scientific knowledge to make the most of it.

Why does this happen? For decades, major international donors and policymakers have prioritized primary and secondary education, which has distracted from investment in tertiary education in some African countries. Providing higher education in technical fields can be far more expensive than the social sciences, forcing increasingly cash-strapped public education institutions to cut expansion in these areas. At the same time, businesses have often focused on short-term gains and considered investing in technical and scientific skills too time consuming.

All of this has created a higher education system that is not geared to local industry, but instead to producing public sector managers. ‘Today’s African universities are factories that churn out civil servants’, says Harvard’s Prof Calestous Juma.

But now the private sector in Africa is now in a position to change this. As the leading source of job creation, the private sector should help African countries create high calibre STEM graduates and researchers. They should partner with local universities to improve the quality of STEM curricula. Businesses could help overburdened faculties design courses that equip graduates with both a deep understanding of science and technology as well as practical workplace skills. What’s more, private companies can use their financial resources to help universities provide physical resources to deliver this training. This would allow companies to reduce the risk and costs of investing in workforce training, as well as assist universities to market themselves as destinations for job-hungry students.

Businesses should further provide talented young scientists with financial assistance so that they can pursue postgraduate and postdoctoral training in African universities, by increasing industry focused scholarships and placements. Major global players including IBM are doing so with its IBM-Research in Kenya, which has established a new resident scientist program for schools in Kenya and other African countries. The applicants are leading scientists and researchers from pre and post-doctoral backgrounds, as well as from academia, government, or industry, and work with IBM researchers in the physical lab environment. Such initiatives allow private companies to build a pipeline of skilled local talent and incentivize the best and the brightest to stay on the continent.

Africa’s private sector could look to the most innovative international models for inspiration, too. Professor Juma has encouraged African countries to consider the example of South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH). POSTECH was actually the brain child of Professor Hogil Kim, the founding president of the university and Tae-Joon Park, chair of the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), a private company. While POSCO’s initial goal was to train world-class engineers for its own operations, POSTECH now has a major role in educational reform in Korea and is recognized as a leader in science and engineering education in Asia.

Given the 11 million young Africans expected to enter the job market each year for the next decade, businesses can have all the scientists, engineers and technicians they need on their doorstep. But only if they properly work with and invest in the institutions that train them.

Follow Dr Sobrinho on Twitter @Alvaro_Sobrinho and Planet Earth