Call to develop research-intensive universities in Africa

African countries need to participate in the global knowledge economy by increasing investments in research-intensive universities to help develop reliable infrastructure and functional health systems, decrease inequalities, and provide a brighter future for its youthful population, according to Sharon Fonn, professor of public health at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

In a public lecture at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria on the role of universities in the transformation of society, Fonn said that universities are in a unique position to provide innovative solutions to challenges facing the continent, but insisted that, if universities are to be the engine of development, research must be approached in a trans-disciplinary manner.

The lecture, titled ‘The role of academia in society – a public health perspective’, delivered on 19 May 2023 was organised by the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) in collaboration with the University of Ibadan.

Poor policies

“If we want to be the engines of development, then we have to be trans-disciplinary in our approach. This does not only involve bringing multiple disciplines to work together but to engage with all stakeholders, including communities who have an interest in the research area to define the problem, design solutions, and then [ensure] the outcomes and benefits are shared. This, then, helps universities contribute to development and fostering equality,” Fonn said.

Fonn, who is the co-director of CARTA, said that erroneous policies have been an impediment to the development of research-intensive universities in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the largest regions in the world with a population of over a billion people, she said, but tertiary enrolment is at under 10%. The global average is 38%.

The low enrolment figures, she said, can be traced back to the colonial period when Africa was urged to invest heavily in primary education, with investment in tertiary education seen as an unnecessary luxury and this has had dire consequences for research and the development of Africa.

She cited that, as a result, in South Africa, public expenditure for tertiary students fell from US$6,800 per student in 1980 to US$1,200 in 2002, a decrease of more than 80%. “Many tertiary institutions shut down and were and still are underfunded … these colleges were shut down at the very time that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was soaring, leading to fewer healthcare workers. Our human resource for health workers in South Africa has not recovered to this day … this policy was flawed,” she said.

Merit has to count

But, even with faulty policies, Fonn said the culture of giving incompetent people jobs in public and private institutions in Africa coupled with non-functioning systems are the main challenges facing development in Africa.

“We don’t always give the jobs – be it teaching or as heads of institutions – to the best candidates, as appointments are not always based on merit. We need to change this. We have had incompetent and corrupt leaders while the competent have been stuck in dysfunctional systems. We expect people to deliver when they are not surrounded by well-functioning systems.

“To have a good higher education system, you need a well-functioning education system, from pre-school to higher level. But, to be effective in higher education, you need a functional support system that repurposes rules and regulations, good human resource and information technology systems, and functioning infrastructure.”

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