Making Higher Education Relevant to Development
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Africa)
April 13, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo has fulfilled his promise to return to school. He has registered as a student in the National Open University of Nigeria's School of Arts and Social Sciences, making him one of the oldest undergraduate students in the world. Last year Namibia’s former President Sam Nujoma took a similar decision.
These inspirational decisions highlight the importance these leaders are placing on the role of higher education in development. But they also raise new policy questions related to the role of education in development.
Many African countries are currently focusing on expanding higher education without due attention to the relevance of higher education to long-term economic development. One of the most common practices is to upgrade technical institutes to full university status.
While this measure may be needed to expand opportunities for higher education, more attention needs to be placed on aligning higher education with development goals. This requires adopting development policies that recognise the role of science, technology and innovation in development. In other words, Africa needs development policies that focus on using knowledge as the currency of economic transformation.
Improving the development policy environment will need to be accompanied by reforms in university curricula to reflect development needs. Some African countries are already starting to recognise the importance of designing a new generation of universities focused on addressing local economic needs.
In Malawi, for example, President Mbingu wa Mutharika is championing the creation of a new technology-based university. The proposed Lilongwe University of Science and Technology’s overall mission is to provide high quality training and research in science and technology for economic transformation.
The creation of the university is supported by the Department of the Science and Technology located in the Office of the President. Malawi is one of the few African countries where science and technology policy is coordinated through a presidential office.
The location of such universities is particularly critical. Malawi plans to locate the university close to Lilongwe’s industrial area. Such a decision will help to improve linkages between the university and industry.
But more importantly, it will create opportunities for industry leaders and managers to be engaged in teaching and contribute to curriculum development. It will also make it easier for students and faculty to spend a large part of their time in industry, thereby making learning more practical and experiential.
The role of African graduates in society needs to be re-examined. There is growing interest in finding ways to harness the expertise of Africans in diaspora to contribute to the continent’s development. This interest shows that Africa is starting to recognise the importance of using existing expertise, rather than simply focusing in training more people.
Creating links between industry and academia should include opportunities for industry experts to teach in universities using appropriate arrangements. For example, production managers could contribute to courses in engineering by running specialised modules.
There is often opposition to this idea from academics and their unions. One of the arguments used is that industry professionals are not necessarily good lecturers. But most university lecturers are employed because of their technical expertise and qualifications, and not because of their training in pedagogy.
Enterprises are learning institutions and their knowledge and expertise can help strengthen university education.
President Obasanjo’s decision to go school is as commendable as it is inspiring. But incumbent African presidents need to follow the example of President wa Mutharika and work to align higher education with development goals. Otherwise President Obasanjo will be unemployable when he graduates.
Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalisation Project.
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