Africa warned away from ‘research for research’s sake’

Continent’s scholars urged to focus on solving societal problems

September 2, 2020
Source: iStock

Scholars in Africa need to create practical solutions to the continent’s problems, rather than focusing on theoretical research, the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit has heard.

Speaking on a panel at the event, Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership University, said that when it comes to research “you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or how to purify water if someone else has done that before”.

“The current research we need in Africa is not theoretical research but applied research. Let’s get the solutions figured out by the rest of the world, bring them here, and apply them to our problems,” he said. “If it hasn’t been figured out somewhere else, we figure out new solutions; but research just for research’s sake is not what we need at this time in our development.”

Reeta Roy, the chief executive of the Mastercard Foundation, agreed that universities and researchers in Africa needed to use “the benefits of what has come before – knowledge from anywhere else in the world – and adapt it to solve current or longer-term problems that shift your economy on to a better trajectory”. 

“The word that comes to mind is relevance. Relevance to the economy, relevance to where we are at this point in the world, and relevance to ensuring transformation for these graduates but also [that] these economies are competitive,” said Ms Roy, whose foundation has funnelled billions of dollars into scholarships for African students.

Mr Swaniker added that as Africa will have the largest workforce in the world by 2035 and technology and societies continue to change at an increasing rate, universities should move from “just-in-case” education to “just-in-time” learning, where students learn how to learn, so that they can acquire skills and facts to solve problems.

It took the University of Oxford thousands of years to build up to its current stature, “but we don’t have thousands of years, we have 15”, he said. However, “constraints drive innovation” and higher education institutions such as the ALU were showing that, he said. “What Africa needs right now is not people who have memorised facts and figures, but people who are problem-solvers. So, we don’t give our students a menu of disciplines but of challenges and ask them to develop a mission rather than a major to solve those challenges,” he said.

Vijayakumar Bhagavatula, director of Carnegie Mellon University, Africa, added that Western institutions could build strong relationships to help newer African institutions with their goals but added that “it must be a two-way dialogue”.

Senior academics mentoring early career researchers or collaborating with research proposals have the potential to be beneficial, he explained. However, those Western researchers have to come here and interact with staff and students, they cannot just be parachuted in, he added. “Carnegie Mellon transformed Pittsburgh. There is a way we could do the same in Rwanda [where CMU Africa is based] although it might be different, but it has to be a two-way street.”

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