The World Bank has announced a “Centers of Excellence” initiative that will provide $158 million to a select group of African universities “to strengthen the capacity of selected universities and their partner institutions to deliver high quality training and applied research at the regional level” in the words of the project document as reported in University World News (November 3, 2013). Some 15 universities will be selected to receive up to $8 million each to strengthen the institutions.
One missing key element will absolutely doom the project to failure. No funding will be provided to the academics teaching at the universities although there will be money to bring in short-term people and consultants. What this means is that the key personnel who are responsible for the day-to-day teaching, research, and the academic life of the institution—indeed the key people in any university—the faculty—will continue to be underpaid and overburdened. In much of Africa, and indeed most of the developing world, the academic profession is paid so poorly that most need to search for additional employment, including additional teaching assignments, consulting, business and so on.
Experience shows that in order to build a center of excellence in any field, one needs an adequately paid, competent, and committed professoriate. The faculty needs to be truly full-time and committed to the university employing them. There needs to be a system of appointments and promotions that emphasize productivity and transparency. The substantial brain-drain from Africa needs to be reduced and top African scholars lured back to the continent to teach. In addition, the amount of money that seems to be available for these initiatives does not seem adequate if one is thinking about salaries, increases in the numbers of academic staff, stipends for graduate students, and in most cases improvements in the infrastructures of the universities.
None of this seems to be in the minds of the planners of the World Bank’s Centers of Excellence initiatives. As a result, this effort, like many others in Africa, will not succeed.