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20 May 2022
Universities can adapt but they need a friend in government
African universities must transform to match distinct African needs and contexts and act as powerful drivers of social transformation and development, higher education stakeholders said at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in Barcelona, Spain.

The stakeholders highlighted some of the challenges facing African universities in dealing with the needs of African society and how African universities could adapt to meet major societal, environmental and technological challenges in line with the conference theme, ‘Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future’.

Potential drivers of transformation

Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu from Bayero University Kano in Nigeria told University World News that: “The massive pool of highly specialised and focused leadership in African societies right now is a clear indication of the transformational outcomes of African higher education. Look at it this way – remove higher education from Africa, and you have a clear idea of what the ‘heart of darkness’ could also refer to.”

In an interview with University World News, Professor Stephen Kiama, vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi in Kenya, said that African universities have the highest concentration of talents and critical thinkers that have enormous potential for driving social transformation and development on the continent.

“Unfortunately, not enough is being done by African universities so the potential remains untapped,” Kiama said. “Research has not been mainstreamed in the national or continental agenda.”

He said the research is largely privatised. Researchers finance their own research to drive their promotion or career development as the support for research funds for postgraduate students is lacking. “There is little or no support for post-doctoral students who provide a vibrant sustainable ecosystem for research where they exist,” Kiama explained.

Professor José Frantz, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, said: “There are some African universities that have demonstrated that they aim to be powerful drivers of social transformation and development relevant to their own context.

“However, there are barriers that universities face that hamper their initiatives. These include but are not limited to finances and who funds higher education, social injustices, and even political influence,” Frantz told University World News.

Performance of African universities

Adamu said that in the political economy, it is never clear when ‘enough’ is sufficient. “Throughout Africa, universities are struggling with their governments for funding support because they are caught up in the political web of government responsibilities and public culture.”

He said the governments in Africa would want their universities to be outlets of a highly skilled workforce to drive African development in many sectors. “Yet, while declaring education is free to their citizens, they do not provide sufficient funding to the universities to enable them to fulfil their roles as enablers of great workforce production. African universities can achieve more if there is the political will,” Adamu pointed out.

In Nigeria, for instance, the only public university that is open in the spring of 2022 is the National Open University of Nigeria – all others have been closed since February 2022 over funding disputes with the federal government, according to Adamu.

Echoing Adamu’s views, Frantz said: “I believe African universities are doing the best they can do with the hand that they have been dealt. COVID-19 has definitely been an eye-opener for many universities in Africa and has highlighted the inequalities that still exist within and among universities.”

She said that one should look at African universities from a point of equity and realise that some face more challenges than others – “and then look at what is being done and measure their progress against where they started and how they have moved”.

Frantz said that when one looks at African universities as a collective, the assumption is that all operate from an equal footing, which is not the case.

African university vs African society

Kiama said existing African universities are still relevant to African society. “Many of them have managed to leap-frog the adoption of technology in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Adamu said that besides environmental, technological and societal changes, “African societies are facing challenges of what I call ‘postcolonial turbulences’, reflected in insurgency, terrorism and cybercrimes”.

According to him, the new directions of research and innovation in African societies are the only way they can remain relevant to their societies. “Through the shedding of their colonial and definitely anachronistic academic traditions, they create relevance for their current societies.”

Act locally and share globally

“The whole debate and conversation that is currently happening around decolonisation of the curriculum in South African universities, for example, is evidence that opportunities are being created for leaders of higher education institutions to reflect on the relevance of their academic offerings to address the needs of the society they serve,” Frantz said.

She emphasised the need for African universities to be creative and ensure that they start to “act locally” and share the work they do globally.

Global partnership

In the light of poor funding from governments, African universities can transform African societies into global knowledge economies through global partnerships with industry leaders as the current model of partnership is condescending, Adamu suggested.

“Global partners (industry, technology, entrepreneurship, research, innovations and universities) tap the vast unexplored pool of manpower production through African universities to make the world a more integrated community.”

The way forward

Kiama said that African universities have the capacity to adapt and meet the challenges, “but they need a friend in their national governments”. Now, most African governments see the universities as providing access to higher degrees.

He emphasised that African universities have a responsibility to be more sustainable, relevant and vibrant, but recognition of and support for research are sorely needed.

“Therefore, the transformation and impact on society should drive African universities’ agenda in teaching, research and community service,” Kiama said. African universities should take deliberate action so society can see them as institutions relevant to the challenges of the day.

Adamu said: “African universities could be more transformative through driving innovation, emphasising employability in their curricula, merging on-campus learning with incidental off-campus learning through digitalisation of curricula and delivery modes, and providing greater attention to gender participation – especially in hardcore technical and IT areas.” He added that learning mechanisms should be targeted and not the acquisition of regurgitated knowledge.

Expanding further, Frantz said that African universities are being transformative in effect “but we need to stop wanting to duplicate the universities of the North and create our own benchmarks that highlight how we are making Africa the continent for all”.

She said that it is time for bold and influential conversations on how higher education institutions can serve society more effectively as well as contribute to the global discussion using “our own success stories”.

This article was first posted by University World News on 19 May 2022: