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[ADDIS ABABA] African universities are not doing enough to promote research and innovation that develop productive graduates, I have learned from delegates attending a major continental conference.

The delegates who attended the 9th African Economic Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this week (1-3 November) stressed that universities globally have a key objective of training students in various disciplines and mould them into professionals useful to society’s development.

However at the conference, I gathered that a number of the participants are concerned that African universities are not producing quality graduates who can compete effectively with their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

To address what they regard as an anomaly, they are calling for harmonising universities’ curricula and industry demands to avoid the mismatch in skills that continues to be experienced.

“The increased number of students joining our institutions of higher learning is a major problem, as universities do not have sufficient resources and facilities to meet the demands of such huge numbers.”

George Yobe Kanyama-Phiri, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi

The conference, jointly organised by the African Development Bank, the Economic Commission for Africa and the United Nations Development Programme, urged African universities to form partnerships and conduct collaborative research in strategic fields such as agriculture, medicine and engineering.

Additionally, they called for training of students in analytical, research and communication skills early in their academic education and not only at the graduate level as most African universities do.

But some scholars do not subscribe to the view held by a cross-section of the participants at the African Economic Conference, as I found out during my interactions with the delegates.

George Yobe Kanyama-Phiri, the vice-chancellor of the Malawi-based Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), argues that African universities have been doing their best in conducting research and creating innovation for grooming graduates for the continent’s development.

“Despite many challenges, African universities are still committed to training graduates who can provide concrete solutions to Africa’s developmental challenges,” Kanyama-Phiri told me. “The increased number of students joining our institutions of higher learning is a major problem, as universities do not have sufficient resources and facilities to meet the demands of such huge numbers.”

To bridge the gap between universities and industry, Kanyama-Phiri is appealing for increased collaboration and exchange programmes between African and universities in the developed world to enhance the production of globally competitive graduates.

The LUANAR vice-chancellor pointed out that sustainable funding is still needed for African universities to realise their full potential and substantially contribute to the development of African countries.

“Western universities produce quality graduates because they have adequate facilities, human resources and [are] well funded,” Kanyama-Phiri elaborated.

From Kanyama-Phiri’s reasoning and my own assessment of proceedings at the conference, African universities could become leading centres of excellence and innovation hubs through increased funding, modern facilities and adequate human resources for capacity building.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.