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Universities in developing countries should ditch the 'ivory tower' legacy of colonialism and enhance their links with the world outside.

Too many universities in developing countries sustain an image of themselves as elitist institutions, cut off from the needs and interests of the society that surrounds them. Ironically, this model is still being pursued at a time when it is being abandoned in the developed world that created and promoted it.

In the 1980s, excessive adherence by developing countries to this model — often a legacy of colonialism — was partly to blame for a collapse in support for higher education from bilateral and multilateral aid agencies.

Organisations such as the World Bank argued that universities in Africa in particular were adding too little to economic prosperity and producing too many unemployable graduates with academic skills for which there was little demand.

Fortunately, this situation has changed. A growing number of aid agencies and multilateral organisations now realise that the cuts of 20 years ago went too far, and are keen to help the higher-education sector rebuild and modernise. There is increasing recognition that strong universities are essential for social and economic prosperity, particularly through their contributions to national scientific and technological efforts.

But as funds start to flow back into the sector — the 2005 report of the Commission for Africa, for example, recommended that Western donors provide US$5 billion for African universities over a 10-year period — the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. If the universities are to meet the new expectations, a fresh model is called for that reflects and responds to the needs of the world around them.

Increased competitiveness

The potential for universities in developing countries to help meet social and economic challenges is eloquently described in a strategy paper for higher education, science and technology recently produced by the African Development Bank, which is currently available for public comment on the bank's website.

Based partly on the bank's own analysis of the continent's higher-education requirements, as well as responses received during a consultation meeting in Ghana earlier this year, the paper makes a strong case for investment in tertiary institutions that will provide the science and technology skills to accelerate economic growth and increase international competitiveness.

The bank's strategy focuses on the need to strengthen national and regional centres of excellence in science and technology, to build up or rehabilitate the existing infrastructure — including tertiary-education institutions — and to link higher education, science and technology to industry and commerce.

Bucking the trend

There is clear evidence that international aid agencies can help achieve these objectives. For the past 30 years, for example, the Department for Research Cooperation of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) has been bucking an international trend by insisting on investment in scientific and technological infrastructure.

Evidence of its success can be seen in institutions such as the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. Thanks largely to SIDA's support, the university has grown from a few hundred students in 1975 to many thousands today, and is a leading research centre in East Africa in fields ranging from information technology to marine biology.

Other aid agencies are following. The World Bank, for example, has announced that it is no longer reluctant to provide loans for higher education, and a consortium of US-based foundations has for several years been supporting a selected group of such institutions across the continent.

But there is still a long way to go in establishing a higher-education infrastructure. Earlier mistakes should be avoided — no more costly institutions whose aims reflect the academic ambitions of those who work in them rather than a desire to contribute to national well-being.

Need to create jobs

Governments need to acknowledge that universities already play an important part in addressing social requirements, and have vital skills and expertise to offer. Too often, university researchers in areas ranging from mining to climate change claim that their skills are ignored by governments, which prefer to turn for advice to Western consultants.

Policy-makers should also be more aware of universities' potential for tackling the critical problem of creating jobs. Innovation-based growth is one of the most successful ways to reduce unemployment, a fact that should persuade countries to support higher education in their poverty-reduction strategies.

In addition, universities need to develop closer partnerships with the private sector. This does not mean sacrificing scientific excellence or academic freedom, but opening up opportunities for productive collaboration — for example, through a joint commitment to 'science parks' like those promoted by universities in the developed world over the past 20 years.

A narrow, academic approach to science and technology must be expand, for example in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, to encompass issues such as intellectual property rights and government policy.

Finally, greater openness requires improved communication beyond academia in the 'new look' universities. A reluctance to communicate with the private sector, with policy-makers, or with the wider community is one of the biggest failures of the 'ivory tower' model. Universities that ignore this are in danger of sharing the same fate as a much earlier type of dinosaur.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net