Collaborative networks are crucial to improve the state of African higher education, says innovation expert Mammo Muchie.
Higher education and research in Africa have largely been neglected, both internally and externally, since the 1980s.
If Africa is to join the global knowledge community as an equal partner, it must revolutionise its research, education and training systems.
This does not simply mean pumping money into individual institutions. This can help raise the profile of single universities or research institutes but will do little to improve the system as a whole.
Rather, the key is to foster and sustain a network that circulates knowledge and encourages the creative learner, researcher and knowledge producer.
The priority must be to promote networks for African researchers to engage with and learn from each other. These must initially work within Africa, set up at various scales in multiple forums. A first step would be to establish an Africa-wide university accreditation scheme.
It is scandalous that this has not already been done, although East African universities have recently revived the possibility of recognising each others' degrees, paving the way for a university accreditation system operating throughout the African Union.
South Africa will clearly be an important player, as it has a strong higher education and research system that includes five universities recognised in international rankings. The challenge is to use these strengths to support the efforts of other countries.
South Africa must continue to keep its borders open to students and researchers from the rest of Africa — more African postgraduates now travel to South Africa for their training than to Europe or the United States.
The rest of Africa must encourage South Africa to engage in their local knowledge activities. This is already happening in some countries. For example, the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology is cooperating with researchers in South Africa on its Millennium Science Initiative and is working to stimulate innovation and improve relations between the two research communities through a joint science prize.
At a broader scale, Africa needs a network of locally relevant journals — such as The African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development — to disseminate research results and knowledge, to facilitate policy learning and informed dialogue, and to encourage emerging African researchers to publish their work.
Equally important are training networks to boost PhD numbers and reverse the sharp decline in doctoral training seen over the past 30 years.
There is already some progress to report. African scientific board members ofthe Global Network for the Economics of Learning, Innovation and Competence Building Systems (Globelics), for example, are inspiring and building research and knowledge capacity in Africa by inviting scientists from other developing regions and top researchers from the North to interact with and help their counterparts in Africa.
The African Globelics Academy for Research, Innovation and Capability (AGARIC) will be running its first PhD school in 2010. The Globelics Academy has provided scholarships for ten African PhD students each year for seven years, where they have an opportunity to interact with the best and brightest from the rest of the world. By establishing AGARIC more African students will benefit by also inviting PhD candidates from the rest of the world to interact with them.
Another scheme, proposed by Stellenbosch University in South Africa, is the African Doctoral Academy, which aims to help PhD students develop generic skills. Although the project would initially focus on students studying arts and social sciences at the university, it is expected to grow to provide for other disciplines at other African universities in Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.
Help from abroad
But efforts must not be limited to within the continent itself. We must engage the broadest possible mobilisation of everyone involved in higher education, research and knowledge to contribute to training and research capacity building. The diaspora could prove pivotal in achieving this.
A good starting point is starting national initiatives to connect local researchers with those who have left to work overseas. For example, in Ethiopia we have recently launched a web-based Network of Ethiopian Scholars-Global (NES-Global) to encourage free and open communication between those at home and abroad.
The virtual space is home to e-books and an e-journal and also acts as an information library or kiosk where Ethiopian universities can upload scientific materials.
Similar efforts could help build links with the diaspora from other parts of Africa — all it takes is some initiative.
Africa has a long history of division and fragmentation — from the European scramble for Africa and the thousands of communities that preceded it, to today's states that, for the most part, remain fragile and aid-dependent.
It is time for us to join up the pieces — through networking — and work together to improve the quality, productivity, capability and use of knowledge to transform African societies, economies, politics and ecology.
Mammo Muchie is a South African national chair on innovation studies at The Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, the Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa. He is also professor at Aalborg University, Denmark, and Senior Research Associate at Oxford University, UK.