Let’s reinvent and diversify Africa’s universities to make them centers of innovation

Not just runners. Taekwando too.
Not just runners. Taekwando too.
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Four of the highest recipients of Olympics medals are also permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The US, UK, Russia and China rank on top not necessarily because they’re superpowers, but because they field competitors in nearly every sport.

By winning five medals in taekwondo, African countries demonstrated they too can diversify into new sports and excel. Though an imperfect analogy, one could apply this lesson to the performance of African universities in international rankings. In one ranking, only ten of the world’s 1,000 leading universities are from Africa. Another survey has South Africa as the home of eight of sub-Saharan Africa’s top 10 universities.

Many top African universities were created to train functionaries of the civil service. This influenced their curricula and teaching methods. The civil service that African countries have inherited from the colonial era emphasized conformity, not creativity and innovation.

Most African countries apply standardized criteria that force universities to conform to the mission of training graduates for the public sector. This is their main sport. But Africa’s demand for higher education has changed in two important ways.

First, population growth has increased the demand for higher education. Second, much of the demand for graduates has shifted from government to the private sector. The latter requires entrepreneurial people train to drive change and promote economic dynamism. Africa’s higher education is hobbled by its historical legacy of functional separation between teaching, research and commercialization of new products. Colonial administrations created research institutes to address local challenges. The supply of graduates was done by their home universities in the UK or France. It was only at the time of decolonization that training African civil servants became urgent.

The legacy of function separation and focus on public service has two debilitating attributes. Universities are defined in law as predominantly teaching institutions with little opportunity for research. Without doing research, lecturers can easily become recyclers of outmoded ideas. This means that every successive graduating class is equipped with less relevant knowledge than the previous one.

The decline in academic standards among faculty and their students is therefore built into the system. The crisis is more acute in the rapidly-changing fields of science, technology and medicine. These trends create loss of confidence in African universities and often drive students to seek educational opportunities overseas.

Paradoxically, this intellectual entropy or decay often occurs in close proximity with quality research undertaken in national institutes and labs. The impact of national research institutes on solving local problems is limited by its lack of students who can act as the carriers of new knowledge into the wider society.

There are two important ways to transfer research results into the economy. The first is through students graduating and entering the labor market and putting their knowledge to economic and social use. The second is through startups from universities, many of which can be created by fresh graduates. Research institutes often house research students from local universities. But this is a poor substitute for a more robust system where teaching, research, commercialization and public engagement are housed under a new generation of graduate innovation universities.

Three-pronged approach

There are at least three ways to create such universities. The first is to create new universities dedicated to innovation from scratch. Though desirable, this approach would require large investments, with nearly $30 million going to initial construction. Even with the use of existing facilities, this is still an expensive option.

The second option is to strengthen the research and commercialization of existing universities, building on on-going activities. This option can work in a select number of universities, especially those whose charters allow them to operate as innovation universities.

For example, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture (JKUAT) is Kenya operates as an innovation university. JKUAT has created the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park to advance product development and commercialization. South Africa’s Stellenbosch University was the developing world’s first higher education institution to build and launch a satellite. These examples demonstrate the viability of using existing universities as innovation champions.

The two approaches could be complemented by adding graduate education and business incubation to existing national research institutes. This could be done initially in fields such as telecommunications, health, agriculture and conservation. These new innovation universities would be focused and could be embedded in ministries which would cover their operations from internal capacity development budgets. They would still be regulated by higher education authorities but granted the autonomy to operate under different ministries.

Many African ministries have in-house research institutes that can be upgraded to graduate innovation universities. Nigeria’s Digital Bridge Institute, for example, has all the requisite components to function as an innovation university serving the telecommunications sector. But it would need autonomy and flexibility to meet its focused objectives without being forced to become a general purpose federal or state university.

There is precedent for such upgrades. The Ghana Technology University College was founded in 2005 by Ghana Telecoms by upgrading an existing telecommunications training institute. The Multimedia University of Kenya has similar roots. There are numerous similar examples in Asia in fields such as metallurgy, infrastructure, telecoms and transportation.

Creating innovation universities can be pursued through three practical stages. The first is to formulate a policy framework under which such universities operate. The second state is to translate the policy into specific legislative reforms to support the new university species. The third stage is to experiment by upgrading a few research institutes that have strong foundations and potential to commercialize products and services.

One of the key indicators of the existence of quality research in local institutes is the extent of their international partnerships. Foreign universities and research institutes tend to work with local researchers with comparable research competence levels. Upgrades the institutes will also help to strengthen such international cooperation.

Broadening the base of higher education by creating innovation universities will enhance the quality of teaching, make research more relevant to social needs and strengthen the direct contributions of universities to development. In the long run this will help Africa compete in more higher education categories. Innovation universities could become Africa’s academic equivalent of its performance in taekwondo.

Professor Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. His latest book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technology, was published by Oxford University Press in July 2016. Twitter @Calestous