"Africa Needs More Technical Universities"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Nairobi)
September 6, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
"Having technical capacity to manage safety information will help African countries to add value to their produce."
African countries are responding to pressure to expand access to higher education by creating new universities to serve provincial needs.
While this is an important step, urgent attention needs to be placed on technology-based universities that reflect emerging global trends.
For examples, rapid growth in Africa’s telecoms industry has revealed major gaps in the continent’s human resource base. African cell phone and computer firms are searching globally for qualified skilled personnel to meet current needs and compete in new service areas.
The common practice is creating constituent colleges of existing universities which later become autonomous universities. The new institutions tend to inherit the institutions genes of their parent universities.
Other than operating in different locations, they hardly generate a new pool of graduate adapted to contemporary market needs.
For example, the expansion of university education in most African countries has not helped to meet the needs of the telecoms sector. This challenge is not unique to the telecommunications industry.
Evidence of it can be found in other sectors, including traditional industries that are starting to modernise their operations using emerging technologies.
The agricultural sector, for example, has traditionally relied on plant breeders. But enhancing its competitiveness now requires the use of new knowledge-based skills which range from genetic engineering to geographical information systems.
Meeting safety requirements in international markets will involve the use of sophisticated information systems that allow regulators to effectively trace the movement of products through the entire food chain.
Having technical capacity to manage safety information will help African countries to add value to their produce.
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are helping to integrate diverse economic fields in new ways. It is for this reason that ICTs are seen as generic tools that underpin most other economic sectors.
Having the requisite human resources in critical fields such as ICTs has become a major challenge for African countries.
One way to supplement the role of general purpose universities is to create technology-based universities. These can either be done by upgrading training institute linked to various technical ministries or charging the ministries with the mandate to champion the creation of such universities.
Similar efforts are underway in a number of African countries. In Egypt, for example, The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology championed the creation of the Nile University.
The University was set up as part of Egypt’s strategy to develop technical capacity in engineering technology and business administration.
The Nile University is a pioneer in a new generation of Egyptian academic institutions designed to work closely with the private sector.
The university was created with support from the Egyptian Foundation for Technology Education (EFTE), a non-profit organization created to improving technology-based education.
The Nile University focuses on graduate training organised through five schools covering: communication and information; management or technology; business administration; engineering and applies sciences; and petroleum engineering and mining.
It also operates centres on entrepreneurship and intellectual property protection.
The example shows that public and private companies in Africa can play important roles as incubators of technology-based universities that address emerging technological issues. Africa already has several well-established industries that rely heavily on science and technology that could emulate these models.
Similarly, firms operating in the industrial, mining, oil and gas, tourism, and agricultural sectors could play key role in building Africa's technical capabilities. Funding may not be the limiting factor. What is needed is imagination.
Professor Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project
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