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World class

To rise to critical issues and attain the Millennium Development Goals, African countries need to apply innovation, science and technology in ways that address local problems. Universities are the best places for distilling such local solutions.

By Chris Gordon and Ernest Aryeetey

In the 1980s and 1990s, donor/aid agencies managed to convince developing country governments that tertiary education and scientific research were luxuries and, if needed, could be acquired from developed countries in the form of “technical assistance”. The result was a hiatus in the building of indige­nous capacity in science and technology at universities in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The situation has changed somewhat – however, a generation of African scientists and researchers was lost, and their input into current development planning is sorely lacking.

For years, the numbers of young scholars were too small for strong domestic debate and critical thinking. Accordingly, many African universities cannot operate at the highest level and be world class today.

The term “world class” is contentious. There are many different interpretations. They depend partly on whether a university is already seen as world class or is striving to become so. In 2009, the World Bank’s seminal report “The challenge of establishing world class universities” identified three complementary elements:
1) a high concentration of talent among faculty and students,
2) abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct advanced research and
3) favourable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation and flexibility.

Last year, an international conference in Saudi Arabia agreed on six key criteria for “world class universities”: such institutions must:
1) educate the next generation for citizenship, leadership and participation in the knowledge economy,
2) promote social mobility as widely as possible,
3) conduct research that will contribute to satisfying social and economic needs,
4) conduct research that will contribute to the advancement of knowledge,
5) interpret, critique and conserve the cultural patrimony of society, and
6) serve as forums for discussion and analysis.

It is, moreover, very important that the general public considers universities to be world class. Such a reputation means capable and brilliant students will choose them, and various funding agencies will consider them. Unfortunately, most universities in Africa fail in the six areas listed above. The task before us is therefore to reverse the trend.

The challenges

One of the lesser known books of Charles Darwin is “On the various contrivances by which British and foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects”, first published in 1862. In it, Darwin presents a key element of evolutionary theory: for the long term survival of a species, self-fertilisation is not a sustainable strategy. Relying only on the genes of one parent results in lower rates of variation which in turn decreases evolutionary flexi­bility in periods of environmental change.

This holds true in academic live as well. Unfortunately, inbreeding and self-fertilisation are common in African universities. One reason is their urge to rapidly respond to pressures for student numbers to increase. To handle the growing load, they have had to rely on their own graduates as teaching staff.

Potential staff are groomed (sometimes from undergraduate level) for faculty positions. In itself, this practice is not an issue. The problem, however, is that in many cases all degrees – bachelors, masters, PhDs – are from the same university and in extreme cases even from a single department, with the same faculty supervising each student. The young staff members never get an opportunity to see how other universities operate.

Another form of inbreeding results from donor-funded partnership agreements which twin a university department in a developing country with one in a rich nation. Over a period of three to five years, all staff for the developing country are thus likely to be trained in a single approach to university work.

Funding for higher education and research has been falling consistently in past decades. Public spending on education by sub-Saharan governments fell from $ 6,800 per student and year in 1980 to $ 1,200 in 2002 and under $ 1,000 by 2009. The main reason was the so-called massification of education. In 1960, there were only 21,000 students in institutions of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2006, their number had grown to more than nine million. The World Bank estimates that, if African university enrollment continues to grow at current rates, the continent will need an additional 450,000 faculty members by 2015. Where will they come from? And how can we make sure that they are up to standard?

In 2004, Germany introduced a controversial scheme known as the Excellence Initiative. Almost € 2 billion was made available to graduate schools, initially in four years. The money was channelled through a rigorous competitive process and has ­effectively created a two tier system, dispelling the myth of equivalence of German universities. Brazil and South Africa run similar, though probably less elaborate schemes, to award funds according to merit. The approach deserves consideration in other developing countries and perhaps globally as well.

Relevance and excellence

When the University of Ghana recently considered creating an Institute for Applied Research, one of our senior colleagues made a point: there is nothing like “pure” research or “applied” research, only good research and bad research. The key to success is excellence. For any university, the pursuit of excellence should be the key driver. This is probably even more so in developing countries than anywhere else. Success equally lies in relevance, as Mohamed Hassan, the former director of TWAS, the Italy-based Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, argued: “Without responding to the needs of society, university science departments will find it difficult if not impossible to sustain society’s support.”

Without relevance of university education and research to national needs, we have a lose-lose situation of unemployable university graduates and frustrated employers. The students lack the skills that employers expect from university graduates, such as critical thinking and the ability to base decisions on evidence.

In some ways, universities are their worst enemies when it comes to pursuing excellence. A common practice in many world class universities is the use of grading curves and a proportional distribution of degrees awarded at different levels. But at some African universities, over 50 % of a graduating class in a particular discipline can be awarded “first class” degrees. Such grade inflation has resulted in scepticism among employers. Too often, they receive a glowing CV, only to find out later that the person concerned cannot reply to a simple query by letter.

So the question is how does one make sure graduates are of use to national and even continental development?
– First of all, university lecturers and researchers have to be relevant themselves. Too often, however, they pursue research that is developed in cooperation with foreign partners who have their own research agendas. Since these partners often provide the funds, they tend to determine the direction of research which may often be not consistent with what the country needs. In other words, the principle of national ownership must not only apply to development cooperation, but to academic work too.
– Second, curricula should be developed not as just an internal exercise among academics but in cooperation with government and industry. Moreover, all knowledge must be up for debate and all science must be contested.
– Third, excellence must be put above all else. In this context, Africans must rise to a special challenge – the desire not to disagree with authority figures. Too often, we adhere to patronage systems linked to hierarchical systems. We need a meritocracy.
– Finally, ageing faculty members will eventually have to be replaced. This is where strong graduate programmes matter especially. Many members of Africa’s “lost generation” ended up in academic or professional positions all over the world. Currently, there are moves to encourage people to return from the diaspora in order to help to teach the next generation of African scholars. The snag is that many of these people are no longer in touch with the pro­blems Africa faces.


For African universities to contribute more effectively to development we need to focus on meritocratic values, rewarding the brightest and the best for performance. The salaries paid to top quality professors who are central to the success of all institutions of higher learning matter very much. Academia can only be seen as a viable profession if there is a career track that rewards productivity and excellence. Salaries must not simply be linked to administrative positions. The “publish or perish” rule should be modified to “publish relevant high-impact research or lose out”. Universities must be bold enough to reject those who consistently produce poor research publications.

The ability to impart knowledge to the next generation is paramount for sustainability. To support research excellence and teaching excellence, Africa needs strong academic institutions in reliable settings.

Finally, even if it seems contradictory, successful universities need strong government support and, at the same, vast autonomy to pursue their research agendas without government interference or donor influence. It is said that the future is in Africa, it is up to us who live there to make this future a reality. This saying is true, and higher educaton must play its part.