African governments must enhance image of their universities – experts say

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Universities in Africa largely lag behind others from elsewhere in the world because governments do not invest enough in infrastructure and facilities that enable creative and innovative research.

The debate was tabled on Sunday at the African Economic Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an annual gathering organized by African Development Bank (AfDB), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

During a panel discussion titled “African universities as agents of innovation and development”, Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa, Acting Chief Economist and Vice-President, AfDB, said that governments should tap into the increasing interest in higher learning education by investing in international standards for universities.

“The allure of something called a ‘university’ is taking over in some African countries. I have found around 10 small structures in countries I will not mention, that have something called ‘university’ attached to them. They attract anybody, because people want education, but the quality is usually not thought about,” Kayizzi-Mugerwa said.

“Africans pay a lot of money to get degrees, but sometimes they find these degrees useless. Therefore, a coalition between government and private sector is important to create international standard universities that offer the kind of education Africans long for, without having to travel abroad.”

Professor Abdelkader Derbal from Oran University in Algeria added that since entrepreneurs are interested in investing in education, governments have a role to seek out potential investors and create conducive political settings that enable innovative learning.

“We do not want a situation where all the good universities in Africa are publicly owned, as this might kill innovativeness and competition for excellence. Governments must facilitate private entrepreneurs, or even partner with them, to set up state-of-the-art universities that can rival those in America or Europe,” he said.

More importantly, collaboration with western universities must be emphasized, according to Professor Angelo Antonio Macuacua, a Vice-Rector at Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique.

Professor Macuacua was of the view that since most African universities are not well equipped to carry out quality research, they can sign agreements with western universities to conduct exchange programs for both students and lecturers.

“Exchange programmes are conducted in very many universities, but they must increase. We cannot directly complete with universities from the West because they have come a long way to be the strong institutions they are. We do not have to go through the process they went through – however, we can collaborate with them and share their facilities, while we build the backbone of our universities.”

In order to enhance research and innovation at African universities, performance appraisals for graduates must look beyond the desire to attain good grades but examine innovativeness, according to Professor George Yobe Kanyama-Phiri of Malawi University.

“Research indicates that lecturers in Africa are rarely available to help their students whenever they are needed – and this is largely because they are fewer compared to the students. On top of that, the teaching methodology in many universities does not give room for innovation,” he emphasized.

“Performance evaluation is very challenging, but we must create systems that do not dwell on numerical performance but innovativeness.”

According to the 2014 World University Rankings by the British firm Quacquarelli Symonds, University of Cape Town in South Africa is the highest ranked university on the continent, in position 141.