IN the 21st century African universities must shift to playing a new role as development partners in order to legitimise their existence, increase their relevance, boost their links to society and the economy and leverage African development. In other words, African universities must move from status symbols to instruments of national development.
This new role does not imply that African universities should form a new arm of government, in addition to the current executive, legislative and judicial arms. Nor does it suggest African universities should become a new government ministry.
The partnership role would be mainly advisory, involving researching and disseminating information to government and society and producing graduates with relevant skills, knowledge and the right disposition to make a meaningful contribution to African society and the economy.
The new role of development partner requires African universities to perform some specific functions. Identifying societal needs and aspirations African universities must be able to assess and identify the political, economic and social needs and aspirations of the societies in which they are embedded.
Such information should be used for three main purposes: (1) designing academic courses and programmes, (2) conducting empirical research, (3) sharing information with government and other development institutions. Once the process of assessment has been appropriately performed, certain academic programmes and courses should be eliminated as irrelevant and new ones developed to replace them.
In accordance with this function, academic courses and programmes imported from outside must be carefully tweaked and adapted into an African social, political and economic environment. Further, any chosen teaching pedagogies should facilitate the fulfilment of identified societal needs and aspirations.
Lecturing, taking notes and sitting examinations as the sole means of assessing learning (or of learning) in African universities are not generally suitable for attaining transformative learning outcomes. Finally, the assessment of societal needs and aspirations is a continuous rather than a finite process.
The reason is that societal needs and aspirations are not fixed in time. They change or shift from time to time, but once an assessment framework is established, all that would be required is to monitor any changes that may occur.
Conducting research and scholarly analysis African universities should engage in empirical research production and dissemination based on the findings of the needs and aspirations assessment of African societies where they are located. This is what is termed relevant research as it does not purport necessarily to meet international acceptability or make international impact.
The focus is on the local. Scholarly analysis of societal needs, problems and proffered solutions are also a valuable contribution towards development. Scholarly analysis is not primarily data-based but it uses logical deduction, sociological imagination and other tools to produce ideas that are useful to societal development.
Producing relevant human capital African universities often claim that their primary objective is the production of human capital for African development. This ties in with the grand purpose for which African governments often establish universities – so that they can play a pioneering role in addressing poverty, social dysfunction, low productivity, unemployment, illiteracy, poor health and environmental degradation.
However, how do African universities determine that the type and quality of graduates they produce are the right fit for African society and the economy? Without authentic empirical data, determining the relevance of what is being produced and the effectiveness of what has been produced is at best a matter of speculation. At worst, it is just the result of a habit of producing graduates without consideration of societal needs and aspirations.
As it has been stated, African universities as partners of development should have the role of assessing societal needs and aspirations. The needs assessment data should inform what types and quality of human capital are relevant for African society and its economy. It is sad to note that a majority of the graduates that African universities produce are grossly irrelevant for African society and its economy.
That is, the human resources African universities produce are not equipped with the skills, knowledge and disposition required to solve problems associated with either underdevelopment or development.
One of the principal problems plaguing African universities is that they tend to imitate blindly the academic courses and programmes of Euro-American universities though the latter are embedded in a different economy and society.
Imitation of foreign ideas without careful tweaking and adaptation has been the bane of African university administration and management. In critiquing human resources relevance for African development, my focus is not necessarily the names of the courses or programmes.
Curriculum content and pedagogies are relatively more important than course and programme names. What is equally important is what knowledge, skills and disposition university graduates possess and the sectors where they are needed. – University World News (African Edition