"Innovative Approaches Key to Financing Higher Technical Education"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Africa)
April 27, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
Financing higher education in Africa is probably one of the most contentious issues in the history of higher education in this field. The perceived high costs of running institutions of higher learning have contributed to the dominant focus on primary education in African countries.
Many African countries are responding to the challenge of providing higher education by promoting the creation of private universities. The policy environment for such institutions still remains uncertain and government support remains limited. In some cases private universities are considered as purely and business with little consideration for the strategic importance of higher education in development.
These approaches have tended to blind leaders from exploring avenues for supporting technical higher education. Indeed, African countries such as Uganda and Nigeria are experimenting with measures that include providing government scholarships and lowering tuition fees for those going into the sciences.
There are other long-term measures to support technical higher education, which include providing tax incentives to private individuals and firms that create and run technical institutes on the basis of agreed government policy.
Governments too need to formulate policies that allow experienced government, industry and civil society staff and other professionals to serve as faculty and instructors in these institutions. This can be implemented as part of a national service system or as an effort to expose students to practitioners.
Such programmes would also provide opportunities for students to interact with practitioners in addition to the regular faculty. Much of the corporate social responsibility investments by private enterprises in Africa could be better used to strengthen the continent’s technical skill base.
The role of the private sector in supporting higher technical training deserves special attention. South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), founded in 1986, offers important policy lessons for the engineering community. It is a brainchild of two innovators: Professor Hogil Kim, the founding president of POSTECH, and Tae-Joon Park, the chair of the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO).
The university started off with a small number of outstanding students who were fully funded and drawn from the top two percent of high school graduates. In 1987 POSTECH admitted 249 students into nine science and engineering departments. It admitted its first graduate students the following year.
POSCO’s research facilities were transformed into an independent Research Institute of Industrial Science and Technology (RIST) and served as a joint arm of the university and the company, making it a model university-industry partnership. POSTECH places heavy emphasis on research and is emerging as a leader in science and engineering education in Asia.
About a decade after its creation, AsiaWeek magazine selected POSTECH as the top university in science and technology. In addition, the Ministry of Education has consistently recognised POSTECH for its outstanding leadership in educational reform in the country.
POSTECH has over the years evolved the initial focus on engineering sciences and has diversified into other fields such as biotechnology. Original concerns that it would only serve corporate ends have not come true and the university stands out as a beacon of research excellence and relevance to the country’s long-term economic goals.
The one major lesson that Africa can take from this case is the role that POSCO, a public enterprise, played in developing POSTECH. POSCO’s initial goal was to train world-class engineers for its operations. It shows that private companies in Africa might successfully support higher education not only for their benefit but also for national economic development. Africa already has several well-established industries that rely heavily on innovations in science and technology that could emulate this model.
Although the costs involved in the creation of POSTECH are currently well beyond the means of most African countries, the model still has the potential to be applied to a variety of fields. Telecommunications firms, for example, that have benefited from the cell phone revolution could explore the possibility of creating leading information and communications schools using POSTECH experiences. Similarly, mining, oil and gas, tourism, and agriculture firms can serve as sources of new innovations in their respective fields.
Improving Africa’s higher technical training is not limited by the lack of money; what is in short supply is imagination and dedicated executive leadership.
Professor Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.
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