Magazine Article - Falmer

Reinventing African Universities

| Summer 2006

Universities have a key role to play in society, but does academia in the developing world have additional responsibilities to national economic development? Drawing on cross-cultural examples across the developing world, Calestous Juma (Social Studies, SPRU 1983), Professor of Practice of International Development at Harvard University, argues that African universities need to reinvent themselves to expand their social mission and solve community problems. A newly elected Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor Juma is an internationally recognised authority in the application of science, technology and sustainable development worldwide.


Universities in society

Universities are under pressure worldwide to expand their social missions. This is more so in the developing world, and particularly in Africa. Universities and the societies in which they are embedded co-evolve, shaping each other in a variety of ways. This co-evolution is an uncertain process, involving continuous dialogue and interaction.

The first generation of post-independence African universities focused on nation building, with emphasis on providing functionaries for the civil service. Today, African countries are facing new challenges related to participation in the global economy, meeting basic needs, and contributing to the transition towards sustainability. These require increased investment in generating, adapting and diffusing available technical knowledge to local uses. Africa must change the way that its universities operate. First, countries will need to consider universities as productive entities (ie as incubators of new enterprises), and not simply producers of a trained workforce. Secondly, universities and other technical institutes must integrate with their communities.

If African universities cannot reinvent themselves to play a leading role in the transition towards sustainability, enlightened governments should charter other categories of institutions to perform this community function. Fortunately, as the examples highlighted below illustrate, there are many historical and modern examples to guide their reinvention.

Universities in development experiments

Entrepreneurial education: Costa Rica's EARTH University
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army and used part of the saved revenue for health and higher education. This courageous act helped the country prosper and become an economic force in Central America. It is against this background that Costa Rica was able to pioneer a new educational model that trains young people to create enterprises and be employers rather than employees.

EARTH University offers a four-year degree in agricultural sciences. It focuses on training leaders who will help advance sustainable development. By training 'agents of change', EARTH University has developed a unique curriculum based on experiential learning. It focuses on agriculture as a human activity, the integration of many academic disciplines, understanding the changing and globalising world, and the linkages between economic, social and environmental concerns.

Throughout their studies students focus on doing practical work related to crop and animal production; they are required to run their own micro-enterprises using a US$3,000 loan from the University, undertake project design, feasibility assessment, market study and business management.

Community development: Ghana's University for Development Studies
The government of Ghana established the University for Development Studies (UDS) in 1992. UDS seeks to make tertiary education and research directly relevant to communities, especially in rural areas. It is the only university in Ghana required by law to break from tradition and become innovative in its mission. It is a multi-campus institution in northern Ghana — the poorest region in the country, affected by a high child malnutrition rate and a serious population pressure, and vulnerable to ecological degradation. The University's philosophy, therefore, is to promote the study of subjects that will help address human welfare improvement.

The pedagogical approach emphasizes practice-oriented, community-based, problem-solving, gender-sensitive and interactive learning. The curricula stress community involvement and community dialogue, extension and practical tools of inquiry.

An important component of the emphasis on addressing sustainable development is an eight-week field practical programme. The University believes that the most feasible and sustainable way of tackling underdevelopment is to start with what the people already know and understand, and therefore the field programme brings science to bear on indigenous knowledge from the outset.

Under this programme, students live and work in rural communities and are required to identify development goals, formulate action plans and help in their implementation. The impact of this innovative training approach is already apparent, with the majority of UDS graduates working in rural communities.

Enterprises as university incubators: South Korea's Pohang University of Science and Technology
Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) was established in 1986. It is a product of two outstanding visionaries: Professor Hogil Kim, the founding president of POSTECH, and Tae-Joon Park, the chair of the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO). This is an outstanding example of how business enterprises can serve as incubators of institutions of higher learning.

Combining the scientific and educational expertise of Professor Kim with Park's financial and enterprising abilities, they followed a simple formula of selecting a small number of outstanding students, supporting them fully, and recruiting the best staff available. In March 1987, POSTECH admitted 249 students into nine science departments.

POSTECH places heavy emphasis on research and hosts eight research centres of excellence and more than 21 affiliated laboratories. In 2003, POSTECH opened the Biotech Centre, one of the largest in South Korea, which is pursuing largescale collaborations between academia and industry in biotechnology. The one major lesson is the role of POSCO in developing POSTECH. POSCO's initial goal was to train world-class engineers for its operations. Through the collaborative initiative and vision of its founders, POSTECH defied all odds to become an excellent internationally-renowned university. This shows that private companies in the developing world can 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.

Reconstruction: Rwanda's Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management
Reconstruction efforts following the genocide in Rwanda have been associated with an emphasis on the role of science, technology and engineering in economic transformation. This is illustrated by the decision of the Rwandan government to convert military barracks into a home for a new university, the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (KIST) — the first public technological institute of higher learning in Rwanda.

KIST, set up in 1997, aims to contribute to Rwanda's economic renewal through the creation of highly-skilled manpower by offering courses in science, technology and management; carrying out extensive research activities and knowledge dissemination; and providing technical assistance and services to all sections of the community.

The success of KIST is a combination of enlightened state guidance, supportive international agencies and autonomous management. These factors, when coupled with entrepreneurial executive leadership, can deliver results in a relatively short time. KIST has put to rest the myth that institutions of higher learning, especially universities, take too long to deliver results.

Lessons learnt
The rising interest in Africa's future has coincided with a new awakening of interest within international development agencies in the role of technological innovation in economic growth. But much of the discussion on Africa's development only marginally addresses the need to harness the world's existing fund of knowledge for development. The Commission for Africa has played an important role in placing the issue on the international policy agenda. But the commission has also pointed out that using existing knowledge for economic development will require governments and other players to focus on strengthening the role of the academic community (as well as business) in development.

Universities and other institutions of higher learning are key players in domesticating knowledge and diffusing it into the economy. But they can only accomplish this through close linkages with the private sector. It will require major adjustments in the way universities function in Africa, as well as the rest of the developing world. Many of these universities will need to change from being conventional sources of graduates to become engines of community development. In other words, they will need to become 'developmental universities', working directly within the communities in which they are located.

Many of these examples are the result of isolated initiatives — some resulting from government foresight, others from occasional academic entrepreneurship, or just serendipity. The challenge facing Africa is to move away from relying on luck and tenacity, and to create an environment that helps to realise the developmental role of universities across the continent. This must start with government policy. Little will happen unless governments realise the strategic role that universities can play in harnessing the world's fund of scientific and technological knowledge for development.

The issue is not simply about more funding. It also involves redefining higher education as a developmental force. This will require efforts to align university activities with development missions.

Thinking ahead
The way ahead involves at least three types of strategic decisions. The first is to promote reform in existing universities, in order to bring research, training and outreach activities into the service of their regions. Most of the universities located in urban areas, for example, should forge close links with municipal authorities to help solve the economic, social and environmental challenges they face.

The second type of decision involves upgrading the level of academic competence at technical institutions that have already contributed to community development, while preserving their traditional role. This, however, is only possible if existing university policies are sufficiently flexible to accommodate developmental functions. Finally, African governments are currently reviewing an increasing number of applications to set up new universities. This gives them a unique opportunity to shape the curricula, teaching and location of these institutions so they can perform developmental tasks.

Putting universities at the service of community development will also require extensive international partnerships. Development agencies such as the World Bank will need to complement their current focus on primary education with a new vision for higher education. African countries, in turn, will need to demonstrate their commitment to long-term development by providing incentives and formulating policies which bring higher education into the service of development.

Today, Africa's poor flock to the cities — many in search of the higher education that they see as the passport to their children's personal success. The time has come for higher education to show results through novel technology development and commercialisation alliances that contribute to economic development.

Professor Juma will be receiving an honorary degree from the University of Sussex at the graduation ceremony this summer.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Science, Technology, and Public Policy
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous. “Reinventing African Universities.” Falmer, no. 44. Summer 2006,

The Author

Calestous Juma