African universities must become more “audacious” and instil a “spirit of subversion” into their missions if they are to assist in the continent’s transformation, according to an expert on African development.
Adebayo Olukoshi, regional director for Africa and West Asia at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, told the Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit that many African institutions have “become too normal”.
“Universities must define themselves as sites of continental renaissance – a renaissance in which the power of ideas and the reconciliation of ideas and policy, which has been missing, will become an important driving force for change,” he said.
He added that poverty reduction would be welcome, but it “cannot be a strategy for [Africa’s] development”.
Speaking as part of a panel discussion on reputation building, he added that it is important for African universities to “define notions of excellence” that “speak to the immediate and specific needs of our context” and reject “abstract” goals, such as achieving “world-class excellence” or producing “world-class leaders”. He said that this is necessary to ensure that institutions do not become “completely irrelevant” even when they “appear to be defined as the gold standard in higher education”.
“World-class means what?” he asked. “The mistake which we have made over time has been to assume there is a defined standard of excellence, by which we must measure ourselves. Excellence itself is a changing concept and today’s universities in Africa must speak to the goals of transformation.
“We have an opportunity to establish a much more nuanced and considered definition of ambition that speaks to our context.”
He added that Africa’s transformation is “not because of universities” but institutions must also ensure it is not “in spite of” them either.
“If it’s not going to be in spite of the universities, [institutions] must [determine] the key drivers of transformation,” he said.
Professor Olukoshi also questioned the “Africa rising” narrative that says the continent's time for rapid development had arrived, stating that there is still “high unemployment” and “high social exclusion”.
“We haven’t done enough of the kind of work that is necessary to describe it as an Africa rising phenomenon,” he said.
Godwin Murunga, director of the African Leadership Centre and senior research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, added that African universities tend to network with institutions in Europe and the US instead of institutions in other African countries.
“Precisely because of that our research tends to speak directly to the national context, which is important. But it doesn’t translate into bigger ideas defining the mission of the continent,” he said.
He added that African universities are hampered by an ageing professorial population and they must invest more in training the next generation of young scholars and improving the standard of graduate programmes.
“The desire for us to develop centres of excellence and the ability for us to translate what is local into the universal depends on whether we are introducing this intellectual community,” he said. “It seems to me either we are doing a very bad job of it or we are not paying attention at all.”