We are now at a crossroads: the challenge is to make the leap from “Yes, We Can” to “Yes, We Do.” Africa has accomplished exceptional economic growth over the past decade, averaging 4.5% per year, underpinned by prudent macroeconomic management. Now it is time to build economic growth that is accompanied by reduced poverty and inequality, and greater value addition on the continent. With new mineral discoveries seemingly every month, the ability of Africans to extract, refine and market these resources is increasingly important. With Africa’s booming cities, the ability to feed urban populations through increased agricultural productivity and build enhanced infrastructure to deliver crops is critical to food security.
And it is not just a trajectory of continued economic growth – it is also the sustainability of Africa’s growth. The disproportionate impact of climate change on Africa represents a robust opportunity for joint research (on coastal impacts of rising sea levels, drought-resistant seed varieties, and renewable energy, to name a few) with win-win benefits for scientists both in and outside the continent. Similarly, collaborative work in medicine can build scientific knowledge for local and international physicians, as building strong institutions will be critical to achieving the next breakthroughs in diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Most recently, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa dramatizes the need for local capacity for testing, diagnosis and laboratories. Likewise, the richness of African biodiversity and the vast array of DNA barcoding offer extraordinary research opportunities for African and foreign scientists alike.
How do we get there, to achieve this value-addition in Africa? We must correct long-standing imbalances in the educational systems in the continent, and make up for long delays in developing science and technology capabilities in Africa. This is, in part, a legacy of Africa’s colonial past, where school curricula were designed to produce a cadre of civil servants to administer the government, with an emphasis on non-scientific disciplines.
Today, Africa’s stock of graduates with secondary and tertiary-level skills is highly skewed towards the humanities and social sciences, while the proportion of African students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics averages less than 25 percent. Women are under-represented in science and technology-related courses and professions in the continent as well. To reverse this trend, the new generation of talented and ambitious young Africans must be equipped with the modern skills and knowledge they need to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges.
The African Diaspora community in the US represents a powerful engine for science and technology advancement in the continent. Catalyzing the rich contributions of the African Diaspora will require support from a range of stakeholders – policymakers, IFIs, and academics -- both here and in Africa. The US higher education system is the global leader in knowledge generation, with significant numbers of Africans taking their university degrees at American institutions. This partnership, and this conference today, marks a first important step in operationalizing the contribution of non-Africa-based institutions to building the STEM capacity of the continent.
I was in Rwanda for a forum on Higher Education, Science and Technology, which featured ministers from a number of African countries as well as academics and scientists from notable partner countries such as India and China, with strong support from Brazil and Korea. The two-day conference closed with a “Call to Action” that set ambitious goals for strategic investments in science and technology to accelerate Africa’s development into a knowledge-based society within one generation.
Specifically, the conference set a bold target of doubling the percentage of African university graduates in the science and technology fields within a decade – by 2025. This, too, offers a lesson to be learned from the past, where African countries focused on reaching universal primary enrollment. We now see the importance of learning outcomes and actual service delivery. Training in science, technology and mathematics is critical to improving the quality of instruction and learning. Instruments to improve educational quality include external examiners, benchmarking, and increasing the cross-country comparability of standards. As Professor Khumbah proposed at dinner last night, why not develop an African GRE which would help to further measure improved outcomes in African Higher Education?
These bold objectives require a different set of choices to be made by African countries, and a different approach to be taken by our friends and partners, including universities outside Africa, and by development institutions such as the World Bank. There have been a number of initiatives in recent years – for example, the African University of Science and Technology, in Abuja, Nigeria. This type of institution must be taken to scale, and consolidated into a bolder initiative across the continent.
Producing those well-trained teachers, who will build the human capital of the next generation of African students, is a costly venture. It requires selective, coordinated investments in regional Centers of Excellence, to optimize limited resources and create synergies across sub-regional groups of countries. I don’t pretend that these are easy decisions – where to locate a particular Center of Excellence – as national pride and politics are often a factor.
Universities in Africa need to achieve the next level of home-grown excellence. A number of US and European universities have built campuses and programs overseas – notably in Asia and the Middle East – but the next frontier is Africa. One US university has opened a campus in Rwanda, and the first cohort of students from this center will graduate later this year. This is an important example of cooperation and support from a foreign university, by building the campus and program in Africa, adapted to local cultural norms and requirements, to strengthen the human capital of Africans in the continent. Those universities who are “first-movers” will have a significant advantage as this is a growing market that will only become larger as the African economic growth remains robust. This represents a massive opportunity to export knowledge, but also to undertake mutually beneficial research and learning, in Africa.
While partnerships between universities will help advance the quality and depth of scientific education, we must also ensure that students can apply what they learn once they graduate. Part of the solution is engaging the private sector to support such centers – for example, extractives companies can help to support funding for university programs in science and technology, and thereby invest in the next generation of technicians and corporate recruits. It requires innovative partnerships and coalitions -- funding these universities cannot be the sole responsibility of the public sector.
Closer links between universities and the private sector will help ensure that students are graduating with skills that reflect what employers actually need. I have encouraged African Ministers of Higher Education to boost private representation on their university boards, to get employers involved in vocational training programs, and to work directly with the private sector on curriculum design. We are also encouraging private sector partners in Africa to offer apprenticeships, internships, and certification programs, to help bridge the gap between what’s being taught in universities and the realities of the job market.
As we undertake this exciting initiative, the key is a shared commitment to a coherent and coordinated approach, lest we have multiple programs, and we must avoid duplication.
By Makhtar Diop,
World Bank's Vice President for the Africa Region (Excerpts).