KAIST passes on founding favour by establishing Kenyan university

University that was founded with US support partners with Korean government to set up African institution

March 15, 2019
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South Korea’s leading science and technology university, which was founded with the aid of a loan from the US government, is passing on the favour by helping to establish a similar institution in Kenya with funding from Seoul.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has become one of the world’s most prestigious research centres – placed 102nd in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings – in the nearly five decades since it was set up with the backing of $6 million (£4.6 million) from the US Agency for International Development. The blueprint for the institution’s development was drawn up by Frederick Terman, a former provost of Stanford University and an advocate for collaborative research involving academics and industry, who is regarded as one of the fathers of Silicon Valley.

Now KAIST is to help establish a graduate university, currently known as Kenya-KAIST, in Konza Technology City, a large technology hub dubbed “Silicon Savannah” that is set to be built by the Kenyan government near Nairobi. The new institution, which will be modelled on KAIST, is being funded by a $95 million loan from the Korean government.

KAIST will develop curricula for six initial departments in the areas of engineering and biotechnology and provide education in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. It is hoped that the first batch of 200 graduate students will start classes in 2022.

So Young Kim, project coordinator of Kenya-KAIST and head of KAIST’s Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, said that the new venture aims to help Kenya achieve its goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2030.

She added that she hopes it will not become a branch campus of KAIST, but rather a university based on the model of KAIST, stressing that it should be “Kenya’s university”. Ensuring Kenya's ownership of the project was also the reason why the Korean government decided to give a loan rather than grant, she said. 

She said that KAIST’s involvement with the Kenyan project will also help KAIST become a “global leading university”.

Dr Kim said that KAIST would help train the initial cohort of academics and staff, who will be drawn from both Kenya and abroad, and assist with the recruitment of students from across the African continent. The institutions are also designing student and academic exchange programmes.

“We are not defining success here as simply opening the university. The true measure of success is going to be the university really taking a central role in science and engineering research as well as education,” she said, noting that South Korea’s focus on science and technology was key to its “modernisation”.

Dr Kim said that the focus on graduate education will ensure that the new institution does not “create unnecessary competition for undergraduate students, as Kenyan universities already have large educational programmes at the undergraduate level”.

“What is desperately needed for Kenya’s science and technology capacity building is more advanced education and research than is provided by Kenyan universities now,” she added.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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