African Academic Leaders Worldwide Strategize on Improving the Continent's Colleges

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thursday, May 31, 2001

 

African Academic Leaders Worldwide Strategize on Improving the Continent's Colleges

 

By BURTON BOLLAG

 

Thirty-three prominent African scholars and leaders gathered in Ghana this week to promote efforts to revitalize the continent's

feeble higher-education and research system -- in part by promoting links between African academics who live there and those

who now work elsewhere.

 

Atieno E. Odhiambo, a professor of African history at Rice University, was one of the participants. "The conference marks a

new beginning" for African higher education, he said by telephone from Accra. "We have a critical mass of Africans in diaspora

who can be mobilized for an African renaissance."

 

Mr. Odhiambo, originally from Kenya, has been on Rice's faculty for 14 years. He links improved prospects for education and

research with the rise of democratic governments across the continent in the last few years.

 

Estimates vary, but there are thought to be something in the area of 100,000 Africans with specialized skills who have taken

jobs in the West because of a lack of opportunities at home. "They work in universities, research institutions, and industry" said

Uzo Mokwunye, a professor of soil science and director of the Accra-based United Nations University Institute for Natural

Resources in Africa, which organized the conference. "We're not talking about taxi drivers."

 

Recommendations of the gathering, to be published shortly, will deal with two areas: promoting links between African

institutions and African scholars working abroad, and promoting fields of research and study that can provide particular benefits

for African countries.

 

The latter will include using indigenous knowledge to ensure a secure supply of food and adding value to Africa's primary

commodity exports -- crops, fish, forest products, and minerals -- by developing modern techniques of processing them.

 

Albert Tevoedjre, a former professor at the National University of Benin and a Beninese government minister and United

Nations official, said the exodus of trained people and chronic lack of funds has left Africa with very few institutions capable of

meaningful research and training.

 

The way forward, he said, is to support "Centers of Excellence" that could attract talented academics and help raise the general

level of scholarship and research in a region. Such centers "would help change the brain drain into brain gain by fostering

linkages with counterpart centers of learning in the developed world."

 

The U.N. University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa is involved in promoting several such centers: in plant-tissue

culture technology at the University of Ghana, in Accra; in the application of computer technology at the University of Yaoundé

I, in Cameroon; and in environmental management and policy analysis at the University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi,

Ghana.

 

Mr. Mokwunye, of the U.N. University Institute, said that the general level of higher education and research on the continent

has deteriorated over the last decade because of Africa's desperate economic situation.

 

He is urging the establishment of a database of African academics working in the West, who would be willing to contribute their

particular expertise to assisting African institutions.

 

Academics working at African institutions often feel isolated, he said. Many have not had access to new periodicals for years.

In a sort of vicious cycle, the private sector has been largely uninvolved in supporting African higher education, because "new

ideas that could be of use to private companies are not being generated at the universities."

 

 

Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education