Higher education is increasingly important to Africa’s drive for development and knowledge-based economies. Having more PhD holders in research and teaching is widely seen as key to producing the intellectual power for this drive.
But it’s an uphill battle. After decades of donors and governments focusing investments on primary and secondary education, under-resourced universities struggle to keep researchers from seeking greener pastures abroad.
Our Spotlight — part of a broader collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation of New York — throws some light on why producing more African academics is difficult and explores current thinking on how to make higher education work in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The emphasis of this collection is on training with practical applications for development and employment — but this is not to underestimate the role of theoretical or other forms of knowledge, including basic research and the humanities.
Overstretched and under-financed
Irene Friesenhahn of the Global Young Academy, our consultant for the project, offers an overview of efforts to boost higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, noting rising public investments over recent decades. But although overall student numbers have risen, limited funding means universities struggle to secure the infrastructure and personnel they need to implement doctoral programmes.
This stifles efforts to increase the numbers of PhD holders and directly affects Africa’s research output.
But it’s not just academic productivity that suffers. Graduates lack the skills needed to find jobs, commercialise research or produce useful knowledge.
Agriculture is one area that can drive growth — and one where practical training can make a difference, argues Martin Bosompem of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Bosompem writes that entrepreneurship training is rare in Sub-Saharan Africa, and universities need to extend curriculums beyond theory and into practice, helping students start up their own modern agribusinesses.
If entrepreneurship is one link between academic knowledge and problem-solving for development, innovation is another. Gerald Wangenge-Ouma of the University of Pretoria in South Africa and Patrício V. Langa of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique argue that reform needs to focus on quality education and creating a scientific ethos. Innovation involves meaningful engagement with knowledge, they say, so educational institutions must do more than merely increase access — or they create a culture where students simply hunt credentials for a better salary.
In the third opinion article, Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, calls for more extensive reform. He advocates ‘mission differentiation’, where some universities emphasise research and graduate-level education while others focus on teaching undergraduates.
Mohamedbhai adds that regional networks can help overcome some of the resource and infrastructure challenges for high-level research. And a feature article highlights wider collaboration and networking opportunities offered by tapping into the African diaspora. Jon Spaull explores the ongoing trend of emigrating African academics but also finds efforts, from both sides, to re-connect.
This could turn a ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain circulation’ that supports capacity-building and innovation.
There is something hopeful about the prospect of turning the ‘brain drain’ of past decades into an asset. The idea finds a positive in something that has long been disheartening. And it signals action that can be taken now, to nurture green shoots of progress.
But this doesn’t down-rate improving the education system to a secondary priority. As Wisdom Tettey has argued, efforts to lure African academics back from abroad will only work if local conditions for research are favourable.
International collaborations can make an immediate difference too: in a podcast interview Quintino Mgani, professor of chemistry at the University of Dar es Salaam, explains the value of initiatives such as the Carnegie-funded RISE programme. But without systemic change and government support, only a few students benefit.
From this perspective, the technology and innovation hubs springing up across Africa can also be seen as signs of systemic failure in higher education, as our film documenting Nairobi’s hubs suggests.  Innovation hubs offer a space for technological invention that’s missing from academia.
The limitations of operating in resource-poor environments often spur creative solutions, yet this is no argument for maintaining the status quo. Necessity may well be the mother of invention; but invention needs more than necessity to thrive. The knowledge-production system needs to support diverse initiatives that each bring something different to the table.
A part in Africa’s growth
How do doctoral education and research fit into this picture — are they really necessary for African development? You’ll find different views in the podcast and film interviews.
UNESCO’s Lidia Brito argues that universities are key players in social transformation because they create future leaders, teachers and entrepreneurs. But to do that effectively these institutions first need to transform themselves. Esther Marijani, Kenya-based doctoral student and lecturer, says that more PhDs will translate to more evidence-based policy.
Nanjira Sambuli, from the iHub in Nairobi, challenges the idea that a PhD is necessary to undertake advanced research. In the university system doctoral research is difficult to access, she says, adding that the hub’s own research and development department offers a different model.
Iiro Kolehmainen, who works with an ICT development partnership between Tanzania and Finland, says doctoral degrees play a role but can’t be compared with entrepreneurship — both are needed to create jobs.
Obiageli Ezekwesili, senior advisor at the Open Society Foundations and a former minister in Nigeria, echoed these views in a speech given at the London School of Economics’ Africa Summit in April. She called for complete remodelling of the higher education system to train a class of entrepreneurs that can become a generation of problem solvers that link growth with jobs.
Higher education, innovation and entrepreneurship are potent ingredients that, brought together, can be part of Africa’s engine for growth. It is clear that African nations can do more to nurture and capitalise on their brightest minds.
Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net . You can follow her @anita_makri.
This article is part of the Spotlight on Making higher education work for Africa.