Africa has been unstable at many points since independence rippled through, with coup versus coup and undemocratic governments often rife. Throughout these sad times the continent’s universities have often stood out as sole beacons in the night – their fiercely fought-for independence sometimes the only freedom in their land. The counterpoint of academic independence can also mean social dislocation from national development plans, and this lack of social relevance can affect much-needed state funding too.
On March 13th 2011 the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa published the findings of a study aimed at establishing how much overlap exists between African national development plans and strategic thinking at individual African universities. To structure this they developed the following model of evolving university roles to use as basis for their research:
o The university as ancillary to development that is driven by ideological / political values alone. Societies such as these see no need for a (scientific) knowledge base – the job of higher education is to manufacture civil servants and to otherwise serve the community in which it finds itself.
o The university as self-governing institution committed to producing high-level skills and scientific knowledge. The enveloping society respects its independence, yet sees no need to contribute additional funding to enhance its relevance.
o The university as instrumental to development. Here society expects it to use its expertise to resolve pressing social problems.
o The university as engine of development as is the case in many developed nations around the world. Here there is recognition that knowledge drives progress, and that it is universities that produce these high level skills. When this stage of evolution has been reached governments and universities may partner to achieve common goals.
The researchers found little evidence anywhere in Africa of knowledge based partnerships between African universities and their governments. The closest they came to social relevance was in Mauritius - although even there the pact was less than formally established though. There was however emerging awareness at national level of the importance of the knowledge economy approach in all eight countries studied – these included Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. However a corresponding lack of urgency was not found among the universities they consulted.
This means that African universities are still sadly lacking in the social relevance they need in order to receive more funds and increase the quality of their offerings and research. Sadly, many of Africa’s brightest children study overseas as a consequence, and there is little sign of this diaspora ever returning home.