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Building Knowledge-Driven Economies in Africa

Basil Enwegbara

Since independence came in the 1960s, Africans have struggled to participate in building knowledge-driven economies. The efforts have been based on the understanding that, without boosting the human capital base of the continent, Africa will continue to experience an intellectual and economic drought and will continue to be isolated from the rest of the global economic competition. But unfortunately, in the drive to provide the necessary education, African leaders have ended up producing mass philosophers, storytellers, and scientists whose laboratory work fails to pursue research for wealth generation and industrial development.

The low incentive structures, low pay, and bureaucratic pressure found in most African universities have forced rewards to be given for long service rather than for creativity and innovation among faculty members and researchers. Teaching methods are unacceptable, with instructors doing little more in an overcrowded classroom than copying their notes onto a blackboard, while the students -- in severely inadequate library and laboratory facilities, as well as distracting living conditions -- tend to engage in memorizing the notes for the examinations.

These passive approaches to teaching and learning, with little or nothing to offer in a world where creativity and flexibility are the ultimate drivers of knowledge-based techno-entrepreneurial development, have further rendered the entire system hopeless. But more frightening is its continuous denial of opportunity and latitude to the best and brightest students -- those students who display extraordinary inner drive and competitiveness, the motivation to travel their own special roads to scientific, entrepreneurial, and techno-managerial preeminence in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economic terrain, where creativity and ideas are the currency and innovation is the primary virtue.

Another impediment to building Africa’s knowledge-based economic system is the fact that higher education in the continent has been hijacked as “the playing ground for the children of the rich and powerful,” as Woodrow Wilson saw Princeton University while president there.

This system continuously excludes the most qualified students due to their lower socio-economic status and frequently denies the best students from poor families access to leadership education, because their parents and/or families lack the political connections necessary to benefit from the meager financial aid that the state has put in place. It is this unfortunate exclusion of young people brimming with creative potential and readiness to take charge of Africa’s future that has contributed to Africa’s unbroken underdevelopment. A simple walk onto the campuses of Africa’s flagship universities, for instance, will convince anyone in doubt of the level of decay in the region’s higher educational system. The seriousness of the danger for a continent that is supposed to reinvent itself in the 21st century in order to escape poverty and become part of the global economic system is very clear.

This widespread hopelessness is spreading to what were once known as the region’s flagship universities. Most disturbing are the situations in Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya where the so-called flagship universities have transformed themselves into assembly lines without quality control. The result today is an army of unqualified engineers, technicians, and managerial professionals.

Nigeria is a clear example of this negligence. This country, which has the highest number of universities in Africa (45 universities and institutions of higher learning and student population of about 404,969), still cannot meet the growing demand for a higher education for a country of some 120 million people. But even more disturbing are the persisting lack of qualified faculty, the high student-to-faculty ratio, empty libraries, and laboratories with outdated equipment. The exodus of qualified faculty from Nigerian universities as a result of the structural adjustment policies in the country still persists in the post-structural adjustment policy democratic economy. In fact, today most universities are struggling with qualified professors making up less than 10 percent of their faculties.

South Africa, supposed to have the only industrial economy in sub-Saharan Africa, suffers from the same problems as Nigeria. Its 25 universities are burdened by obsolescence in equipment and inadequate infrastructure as they serve over 600,000 students. Since 1993, the situation worsened because the Constitution puts university education directly under the national government. This nationalization of education was a problem because enrollment increased tremendously without any corresponding increase in faculty recruitment or infrastructure expansion.

Even the good efforts by the World Bank in 1995 to establish African Virtual University (AVU), a satellite-based distance education system, have not changed the poor state of human capital development in the sub-Sahara. This is because AVU lacked a well-structured and well-coordinated learning and teaching environment, rendering it unable to bring students and faculty face-to-face to deal with the realities on the ground.

Africans must ask themselves if countries like Hong Kong -- with miserable per capita incomes, overpopulation, and lack of natural resources -- could become industrial giants in less than 50 years because of their investments in human capital, why can’t Africa achieve the same result? Why can’t Africa, with its abundant natural resources and youthful population, develop its own human capital and unlock the techno-managerial and entrepreneurial potential of its great men and women?

The African situation today requires an entirely new approach, an approach that must not be weighed down by any form of regional political bureaucracy. In fact, the uniqueness of the situation requires collective responsibility, the responsibility to establish a regional world-class technical university -- the MIT of Africa -- to educate those young men and women with the ability and the passion to take the center stage of scientific, entrepreneurial and high-tech leadership in Africa, and who also have the readiness to move Africa into today’s fast-paced global marketplace, just as MIT has led and continues to lead America through this century.