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Higher Education and Science
September 1, 2010 - 10:00am

I recently attended the Second Science with Africa Conference jointly organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission and many others in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 23 to 25 June, 2010. More than 500 scientists, researchers, representatives of bilateral and multilateral development partners, NGOs, higher education and science and technology ministries attended from more than 50 countries around the world.

Nearly a decade ago, I took interest in documenting the number of African countries with ministries of science and technology (and higher education). More than 15 countries had such ministries in 2005. This editorial will largely reflect on the dynamics of science and technology and higher education development in the region on the basis of the dialogue at the conference and interest in this area.

Advancing Science and Technology: Tenuous Links with Higher Education?

Building strong capacity in science and technology without robust universities will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. This is more so in Africa where universities remain the major bastion of science and technology. At this conference, the relationship between higher education and science and technology appeared to be somewhat tenuous. The role of African universities in the advancement of science and technology in the region received surprisingly little attention. Opening speeches, presentations and draft recommendations barely mentioned higher education. This prompted a concerned representative of the African Development Bank to underscore higher education as a “bedrock” for the advancement of science and technology. That observation also prompted a representative of the African Union Commission to stress the emerging PanAfrican University initiative whose five thematic networks are dominated by science and technology.

Producing high-level expertise to create, access, adapt, consume, and disseminate knowledge has become critical for national development. Hence integrating science, technology and higher education as a strategy for a sustained and meaningful social and economic transformation is gaining more traction. Institutions, departments, and expertise have been reorganized, reshuffled and streamlined to capitalize on their collective strength, quality and vigor to assume more efficiency and build competitiveness. The repositioning and reconstitution of ministries and organizations is the right step towards the realization and enhancement of development objectives. Today, nearly a third of the African continent as well as many Latin American and Asian countries have integrated their higher education and science and technology bodies under one roof.

Tertiary institutions in Africa have shown considerable growth in the last decade; the number of public and private institutions has grown many fold, enrollment has soared, and the means of delivery are diversified while issues of quality and accreditation have become more complex. Concurrently, advancements in science and technology have generated new knowledge and information with consequent opportunities and challenges to African nations.

Several participants and presenters noted a lack of “clout” of ministries of science and technology and their status in the pecking order of national ministries. Only 20 countries in Africa have an integrated national science and technology policy. Senior science and technology officials recounted continued difficulties in gaining support for their ministries. While Africa confronts chronic challenges in funding higher education, it appears that the problem is particularly serious for this sector. It was suggested that closer interactions between science and technology ministries in the region may help raise the profile of such bodies nationally.

PanAfrican University: The Burden of Experience

As part of the PanAfrican University Project, the African Union Commission is establishing five centers of excellence. Three hosts have already been identified— Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria. Decisions as to “who gets what” is a political as well as a technical matter in which comparative advantages of existing institutions and initiatives are examined by the Bureau of the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF). Some skepticism exists due to past initiatives that have yet to bear fruit—even emerge from the ground.

The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) declared the African Renaissance nearly a decade or so ago with considerable fanfare and excitement. The initiative was intended to establish five centers of excellence in the five corners of the continent with an estimated USD 5 billion. The state of play of this initiative and its relationship to the new effort remains unclear.

The African Institute for Science and Technology (AIST) of the Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa (NMI) is yet another initiative. It was intended to foster economic growth and development through the promotion of excellence in science and engineering. NMI also planned to develop four campuses in four corners of the continent. The status of this initiative is also unclear.

To be fair, according to the director of the Human Resources and Science and Technology of the Commission to the COMEDAF, “the Pan African University is not another university in Africa. Rather, a project for promoting excellence in existing universities with the aim of focussing [sic] on areas and fields that [hold] tangential benefits for African development”.

Although there is considerable momentum behind the Pan-African University its sustainability and impact will depend on sustained political support beyond the terms of office of current incumbents, on institutional support, competent leadership, stable management, a clear mandate, measurable goals, as well as adequate financial, logistical and technical resources, and extensive regional and international networks.


In building the region's knowledge system, African leaders and policy makers should forcefully underscore the “natural” bond between higher education and science and technology. It is simply inconceivable to plan to advance science and technology without a robust higher education system in the region.

Furthermore, the urge to establish new initiatives, especially when similar ones exist, needs to be restrained to conserve resources, time, and energy, expedite results, and minimize lost opportunities. The culture of building on what already exists, instead of establishing competing initiatives, needs to be vigorously fostered in the region. To this end, as emerging initiatives are conceived and planned, existing ones need to be carefully evaluated and, equally importantly, widely and persuasively communicated.

Damtew Teferra is the former director for Africa and the Middle East of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program in New York. He was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa, the author of Scientific Communication in African Universities: External Assistance and National Needs (2003, RoutledgeFarmer) and African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook (2003, Indiana University Press) and African Higher Education: The International Dimension (2008, BC and AAU). More information at A longer version of this editorial will be available soon at:



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