Leaders under fire

African leaders lack the political will to make education a priority. While the continent has resources and skills, it does not have ‘the will power to have education on the top of the agenda”.

This was the strongly worded message from Nigeria’s University of Ilorin vice-chancellor, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, at his inauguration as the new president of the Association of African Universities (AAU). Oloyede took over from former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele.

The inauguration was held recently at the end of the AAU’s 12th general conference in Abuja,Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Central University of Technology and from universities across the rest of Africa.

During the conference the role of Africa’s higher education system as a ‘force for change” was highlighted given that Africa has more than 300 universities, employs 150 000 academics and serves five million students.

For Dr Akpezi Ogbuigwe, head of environmental education and training under the United Nations Environment Programme, this role was relevant as Africa looks at its environmental resources.

She said: ‘To ignore the higher education sector in economic sustainable development efforts would be to ignore the power of knowledge residing in the universities and the power of the youth in contributing to responsible, critical and effective decision-making in future — There is no doubt that universities are the world’s greatest source of ideas and innovation.”

One of the keynote speakers, Dr Kevin Urama, executive director of the African Technology Policy Studies Network in Kenya, warned that pedagogies and incentive structures at African universities are discipline based, focus on the ‘publish or perish” approach, discourage collaboration, innovation and trans-disciplinarity and from this, the role of sustainable development is limited. He explained: ‘Most governance structures in higher education are hierarchical and rigid.

Knowledge and technology are based on a linear transfer of science. As a cost-cutting measure, most universities adopt a passive approach to teaching and this kills the innovative capacity of students who end up looking for white-collar jobs.”

Urama said students are not taught to use their own initiatives to find solutions and science
is perceived as foreign in African society. Many academics prefer science from out of Africa; they publish in international journals but need to build on the quality of local journals, enabling them to compete internationally. ‘We need a complete re-engineering of the system. We need deeper thought on how we learn and what we teach.

Education is meant to solve the problems of my grandmother –it’s time to think how we can root higher education in African soil.” He said questions need to be asked such as: whose curriculum is this? Whose problem is it going to address and who defines a research project?

There also needs to be a move from the ‘publish or perish” approach to more inclusive performance incentives to favour problem-solving, innovation and socialisation of science in Africa, Urama said.

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