Neglect of science and technology in African universities has been compounded by a failure to focus research on the continent's needs, says Mammo Muchie.
Research universities, as a source of new knowledge, are one of the critical levers — along with government and industry — needed to shape a knowledge economy in any part of the world.
The key question for Africa is how universities can be aligned to support economic development, the eradication of poverty and sustainable use of natural resources. Here research and knowledge, far from being ivory-tower pursuits, become critical to making poverty history and preparing countries to cope with disasters.
However, to achieve this, research should be understood not only as a source of new knowledge, but also as a process that trains people to create more knowledge.
A strong research base
Africa needs a strong pan-continental community of researchers to discover resourceful, timely ways to deal with poverty's many causes. This requires the development of strong research universities — institutions with a strong emphasis on graduate research, as opposed to undergraduate teaching, and where graduates are taught by lecturers who themselves are expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
The neglect of science, technology and innovation when building universities in Africa must be addressed. For far too long this folly has been compounded by a failure to focus knowledge creation on Africa's research needs: data about biological processes, minerals, public health, water and food.
Indeed it is only when the universities work together on research in these areas that they will provide relief from — rather than add to — the burden of Africa's poverty.
There is still a place for more traditional subjects in post-colonial universities, such as studying European literary classics, but these should not be a priority. Reform must be concentrated on investment in research geared to solving the continent's main problems.
There have been two significant attempts to create research universities recently. Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia has opened a campus to train 5,000 PhD students in the next ten years, with some 60 foreign universities being invited to cooperate in the training.
This vision of changing an existing university into a 'pre-eminent research university' is certainly ambitious. A limitation is that it is to be resourced mainly from donors and with the expected support from other universities in Canada, Europe, and the United States.
And a critical problem is that the existing university members of staff are expected to continue to do 70 per cent of undergraduate teaching, even though annual intake is expected to expand every year.
Even if these constraints are overcome, it will not lead to the creation of a world-class university geared to solving Ethiopia's problems unless policies, resources, talent, governance and incentives are coordinated to indigenise research and knowledge creation.
The second research initiative is the African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Abuja, Nigeria. Set up by the Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has been described as an accredited and independent university, the first of a Pan-African Network of Institutes of Science and Technology and Centres of Excellence.
Its comparative advantage over Addis Ababa University is that it can evolve as a research university from inception, rather than undergoing a painful transition from a teaching-focused to a research-focused institution.
That most of the world's research universities are based in one country — the United States — tells its own story about how difficult it is for poor countries to create research universities. Some governments, such as those of China and Nigeria, are trying to widen access to higher education and develop research capacity at the same time, but since the creation of world-class national universities is not easy, we should think in terms of building a pan-African infrastructure for science and technology research.
There is a need for a bold commitment to establish at least five regional science and technology universities with five major laboratories that can focus on specific specialisations such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, environmental technology, medical technology, food technology, energy technology and information technology between them.
I am not asking donors to build a research university for Africans. Africans have to learn to think through their problems and find solutions without blaming others for anything that may go wrong. It is precisely to change the asymmetric relationship with donors that knowledge and research generated and owned by Africans to solve African problems must be promoted.
This means mobilising talent principally from within Africa, and employing African ingenuity, perspective, foresight and imagination to tackle Africa's problems.
A research university for every African country may not be possible. But a few world-class universities shared and built by Africans to develop researchers who think deeply, create knowledge, and are committed to serving Africa without elitism are absolutely necessary to make poverty history.
Mammo Muchie is professor and director of the Research Centre on Development and International Political Economy, at Aalborg University, Denmark, and a South African national chair on innovation studies, at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa.