Role of universities
Leaders of the industrialised world, who met at the G8 summit in
Gleneagles, Scotland last week, have agreed to help develop professional
skills through networks between higher education institutions and
centres of excellence in science and technology. This is a big shift in
aid policy from the current focus on primary education.
But funding for such activities will have little impact unless
African countries reform their universities and research institutions to
focus on solving local problems. Many African universities were created
to train civil servants, but times have changed. Today, Africa needs to
stimulate economic growth so it can work its way out of poverty.
Universities must contribute to this task.
The good news is that Africa can learn from successful efforts to
bring technical knowledge to development. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished
the army and used part of the saved revenue for higher education. This
helped the country prosper and become an economic force in Central
America. Costa Rica's Earth University pioneered a new teaching model
that focusses on training young people to create enterprises. A large
part of the reconstruction of Rwanda after the genocide was done through
the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management. The
institute is at the forefront of providing alternative energy sources
such as biogas. Its students have built footbridges.
Universities can also play a role as social entrepreneurs. Students
at Ghana's University of Education, Winneba, tune into Radio Windy Bay
to listen to lectures. The university could use radio and other tools
such as podcasting to extend its mission to the wider community.
African countries will need to take steps to benefit from a new focus
on support for higher education. They must align their policies and
government structures with the need to put science and technology at the
centre of development. This will involve the appointment of science and
innovation advisers to help leaders focus on the role of innovation in
Governments will need to rehabilitate university infrastructure,
especially their communications and information facilities, to become
part of the global knowledge community. Such links will also help them
to tap into their experts in diasporas. Outmoded curricula that focus on
training students to become paper shufflers and pen pushers must be
replaced by new approaches that encourage creativity, enquiry and
entrepreneurship. It is also crucial that emphasis is placed on bringing
research, teaching and community outreach together.
Medical schools should be more directly integrated into hospitals,
just as agricultural research stations should have a strong teaching
role. Finally, universities should enjoy greater autonomy from state
control so that they can adapt in a timely manner to a changing world.
If African universities do not make these changes, they will become
increasingly marginal and their status will decline. Governments will do
no better if they fail to make knowledge the driving force for
improvement. These reforms need to be made even if financial aid is not
available because the times have changed. As philosopher Eric Fromm once
observed, in times of change only learners inherit the earth.
(Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international
development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.)
(Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004)