A three-step strategy for African education

Students Writing_Flickr_Connor Ashleigh_Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Copyright: Flickr/Connor Ashleigh/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Speed read

  • A three-tiered model could ensure that education steers development
  • First would be basic, practical training, then trade-based skills
  • Last would be a focus on creating globally recognised technical institutions

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The world is dominated by a drive towards democratic governance, with politicians, especially in the developing world, making expansive promises when campaigning to deliver socioeconomic improvements — from potable water and food security to healthcare, employment and education.

These pledges require the active involvement of smart, dynamic, patriotic, sincere and committed people. But rarely do we hear politicians in developing nations mention the need to produce a critical mass of skilled and knowledgeable workers to deliver these development promises, and then operate and manage them. This demonstrates a weak understanding of the critical role that knowledge and skills play in identifying and solving socioeconomic problems in developing countries.

The convergence of government, universities and industry commonly referred to as the ‘triple helix’ concept of sustainable development forms the basis for any nation’s survival. In this model, governments provide strong political, economic and technological leadership to a dynamic and highly efficient academic sector. Academics, in their turn, forge the high-quality and relevant research outputs required to drive industry in a sustainable manner.

This model is typical in developed countries, but remains either hazy or highly misunderstood in most developing countries. In many of these countries, each link of the desired ‘helix’ seems to be functioning as a separate unit, with little synergy between the three.

Numbers but not impact

Africa has not used its higher education sector to help address challenges such as poverty. Performance assessments tend to be directed at numbers only: tertiary education institutions established, PhDs produced, high-impact journal papers published and patents filed and registered, among other things. There tends to be little focus on the relevance of PhDs, publications or patents to socioeconomic development. High numbers of institutions, PhDs, publications and patents have not translated into jobs, food security or the widespread provision of energy, healthcare and potable water.

Yes, PhDs are needed in developing countries, especially in Africa. But it takes a lot to achieve them. Elite knowledge workers require specialised equipment and considerable investment in both research and salaries. Their training takes many years, and their product — knowledge — requires further skills, time and resources to mature into development solutions. As such, a strategic approach is needed to ensure resources are effectively used based on priorities.

A three-tiered model

Africa needs a better strategy for fashioning its education system to steer development. It should adopt a three-tiered model to achieve this. Since low enrolment and high dropout rates are common in the formal basic education system in many African countries, the key first layer should focus on giving students the skills they need to provide generic solutions and services to help reduce absolute poverty. This would involve investing heavily in basic, short-term technical training by providing standard classrooms, libraries and basic science facilities, and establishing a pool of highly motivated and qualified instructors to ensure high literacy levels. It would also involve lessons on hygiene, water issues, environmental management and food production.

Once large pools of young people have gained basic jobs — which typically reduces absolute poverty levels — countries should focus on the second layer. This involves helping the young people who have acquired basic formal education to learn trade-based skills.

“The three layers provide a logical way to build capacity and use knowledge needed for development.”

Umar Bindir

These skills would empower them to recognise opportunities to secure better jobs, to be dynamic and creative, and to participate fully in creating wealth through endeavours such as manufacturing, production, and the operation and maintenance of infrastructure and facilities such as housing, roads and healthcare. These skills would also enable them to create wealth from Africa’s abundant raw materials.

Delivering these two layers alone would almost certainly boost youth empowerment and young people’s participation in socioeconomic activities. It would also increase their confidence to be entrepreneurs, and enhance their economic independence and interdependence — hopefully leading to reduced youth restiveness, and improved continental productivity.

It is, however, necessary to recognise that in targeting the above goals, governments must increase their investment in both secondary and tertiary education to produce the required pool of high-quality teachers and trainers. Governments must also focus more on building and equipping modern science laboratories and technical workshops, and ensure the provision of practical, hands-on courses for trainers.

The final layer

The third layer involves focusing on establishing and developing technology institutions with a global reputation. In particular, governments must establish universities and institutions targeting special areas of comparative advantage. These would need large pools of postgraduates to generate the knowledge and technology required to sustain economic competitiveness and industrialisation. Partnerships and collaborations on high-level research will gradually emerge, as will the desired improvement in investment on research and development.

The three layers provide a logical way to build capacity and use knowledge needed for development. However, the elements do not need to be pursued individually in the order presented here to be effective. A dynamic mix of the elements would be needed, along with strong policies, sustained investment, close monitoring and evaluation, and clear impact assessment drives.

Such dynamism would create a system where teachers are more motivated and postgraduate researchers are more relevant, satisfied and useful to society and economy. Furthermore, the traditional indices used to measure the dynamism of universities, such as publishing, registering patents and producing further PhDs, would naturally improve. It would also strengthen the links between universities and industry through the licensing of intellectual property rights to address socioeconomic issues, and, ultimately, the continent’s ‘brain drain’ would be substantially reduced.

This three-layered model may allow Africa to unleash its existing and future postgraduates, and drive the evolution of a functional knowledge system for sustainable development.

Umar Bindir is director-general of the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, Nigeria. He can be contacted at [email protected]

This is part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.