A West African university has overcome staff and student hostility to launch pioneering community links that involve all its students living for two months in a disadvantaged area.
The government of Ghana set up the University for Development Studies in its poor northern savannas in 1992 with the remit of "blending the academic world with the community" in a bid to reduce poverty.
Saa Dittoh, the university's pro vice-chancellor, told the second international New Generation Universities conference in Kamloops that it offered a model for other African countries and institutions. The UDS, which began with 40 students in 1993, has 3,000, taught by 100 staff in faculties of agriculture, medicine and health sciences, applied sciences and integrated development studies.
Ghana's higher education admissions policy targeted the best pupils and took few entrants from deprived areas, but the UDS admitted the top pupils from clusters of schools in both advantaged and disadvantaged areas, he said.
Most of the university's staff came from traditional universities and had opposed supervising students for eight weeks in poor communities, arguing that it was not academic, Professor Dittoh said. Students had been wary, too, but there is now more acceptance and understanding of the strategy.
"If we have a community-based problem-solving approach, we must have a programme that engages the community," Professor Dittoh said. "The whole essence is for students and staff to interact and develop a plan and execute development programmes with the community. They live in the community because for somebody to accept your message, they must accept the messenger."
Professor Dittoh said there were signs that international development organisations were interested in the students, and staff now recognised that the scheme gave them a competitive edge.
The UDS still met with "downright discouragement" from older universities in Ghana, "either because they believe the experiment will not work or they fear its success - we believe it is the latter," Professor Dittoh said.
The government has yet to earmark a budget for the scheme, but there has been growing interest from external organisations such as the World Bank, which had initially said Ghana did not need a new university.
The NGU is a network of new universities with close ties to their local communities. The conference, attended by university leaders from 15 countries, was hosted by the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops.
Next year, Cariboo will gain university status and incorporate the British Columbia Open University.