Africa is the continent that is the most vulnerable to climate change. The reasons are many and include widespread poverty, over-dependence on natural resources, recurrent natural disasters, inadequate social and economic infrastructure, conflicts and poor governance. Higher education institutions in Africa are therefore compelled in providing solutions to some of the development challenges posed by climate change. This is what prompted the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), which has a membership of some 50 public universities in 15 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to recently organise a workshop in Mauritius to examine how its members can respond to the issues related to climate change and adaptation.
Some interesting findings emerged from the workshop. First, although expertise in climate change does exist in universities in the region, this is rather disparate at both the regional and national levels. Also, the expertise, where it exists, is concentrated in a particular discipline or department and not integrated within the institution as a whole. There was a felt need for creating a database of ongoing climate change activities in the region to enable sharing of knowledge. Second, the tendency for higher education institutions in Africa is to follow or replicate what is done in institutions in the developed world. Africa has its own specificity and there is need for region-specific approaches and research to be undertaken. Third, it was acknowledged that considerable and valuable indigenous information exists in local communities, for example among farmers in the rural areas, and that it is important for universities to reach out to these communities and to incorporate their experiences in their academic activities. Fourth, the current organisational structure of higher education institution, made up of ‘silos’ of academic disciplines, is not conducive to tackling the challenges of climate change, which requires a multi- or even trans-disciplinary approach. There is also a need to mainstream climate change in the curriculum of all the programmes. Fifth, that the whole method of teaching and learning in African universities must change from an over-emphasis on imparting knowledge to one of inculcating in students such generic skills as team work, critical and systems thinking, creativity and innovation. And sixth, that climate change must be looked at from a broader perspective of developmental challenges for the region, especially those of achieving sustainable development or meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
At present, however, African higher education institutions face huge constraints of inadequate and poor infrastructure, under-funding, severe shortage of faculty, etc. How, then, can they take on the additional task of tackling the issues related to climate change? The general feeling was that meeting the development challenges can in fact be used as an important leverage to revitalise teaching and learning in African universities. At a time when the craze in higher education is about global ranking of institutions and creating global universities, the workshop starkly brought to reality that African higher education institutions have first and foremost to be at the service of their communities, countries and region in overcoming their enormous development challenges.