By Nick Ishmael Perkins
Currently there are few debates bigger than the discussion over what kind of educational interventions will follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire in 2015. How should we begin to address this issue? One good option, I believe, would be to start reflecting on the challenges of increasing the number of doctoral candidates across the African continent.
There are two issues that those who would champion science need to engage with in order to get some traction from this international commitment of resources: one related to the framing of the debate, the other regarding implementation.
Fighting for science
Let us start by looking at the framing. Those wanting to champion science need to think carefully about how they argue their case. They should be sure to frame it in a way that resonates with those who have the power to enact the desired changes. This is especially true given that science was largely ignored by the MDGs. The audience they need to reach is the same audience that the report by the UN’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda was aimed at.
The time to start planning this approach is now. Amina Mohammed, the UN advisor on post-2015 development planning, speaking on a panel convened during the UN General Assembly by the African Union and Planet Earth Institute on Higher Education and Post 2015 Development, has said that the intergovernmental process of the next 18 months will involve a crucial fight for science and technology.
The good news is that science is well served by the High Level Panel report.  It features in three of its illustrative goals. But the case for tertiary education for science specifically is less well articulated.
This is understandable — the report cannot be all-inclusive — but there are some assumptions about what science can achieve which cannot come to fruition without a continued investment in higher education.
“Countries could do more to help themselves independently — but the international community also needs to make the structural changes that enable them to do so.”
Nick Ishmael Perkins, SciDev.Net
First, it is important to note that the number of scientists per capita in Africa is less than ten per cent of the levels seen in Latin America. Because many African countries present relatively difficult environments for conducting scientific research, the scientific community there is, broadly speaking, fledgling and vulnerable.
The report proposes a new ‘global partnership’ of shared responsibilities across sectors and countries as the central transformation required for more effective development after 2015. The authors call for scientists to be included in this partnership. But without making investments in education across the continent, the partnership may end up exacerbating the economic implications of the ‘brain drain’ that is already devastating Africa.
Second, the ‘data revolution’ also called for in the report necessitates a professional class capable of doing more than collecting data and supporting analysts in the global North. Creative, critical and curious scientists that meet this need can only be produced by a well-developed higher education system.
But to establish institutions that can train scientists that can operate on the world stage we need to support capacity.
A history of interventions
Science champions making the case for greater support for higher education also need to engage with programmatic issues; what happens after they have made a convincing case and those with political will and resources ask: ‘Okay, so what do we do?’.
It is worth remembering that higher education is a complex area with a long history of interventions, which suggests the need to prioritise policies that draw on expertise and experience. With this in mind, there are two promising ways to start making a difference.
In his forthcoming book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam talks of the dangers of rolling out standardised, universal aid interventions in delicate social ecosystems and expecting specific results.
To me this suggests that efforts to scale up activities for higher education should be approached with caution and it would be better to focus on quality, not quantity.
Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, resources might best be focused on producing just a few universities that have significant weight and impact internationally, allowing each to specialise in different but crucial faculties. The key would be to invest in an infrastructure around them, including good IT systems and other equipment. Working with the best and brightest graduates from the continent is particularly important because good programmes need good graduates. This will be costly to do properly, but the advantages are not hard to imagine.
The African Population and Health Research Center has already built a consortium around the objective of investing in a small number of high potential institutions. Ironically, there are a number of programmes across Africa with similar objectives, but they are not coordinating with one another.
Yet there is one intervention that could quickly make an impact on the quality of scientific higher education in Africa: improving students’ language skills. Africa is the only continent where students routinely learn a major second language — typically English, French or Portuguese. Yet despite this inherent advantage, students’ scientific vocabulary is often very limited. If teachers were helped to build up their pupils’ scientific literacy from an early age it could reap disproportionately high benefits at university — and beyond.
Jumping an educational generation
Countries could do more to help themselves independently — but the international community also needs to make the structural changes that enable them to do so.
A concrete issue such as language training could have important spin-off benefits for higher education. Surely, the experience of online repository JSTOR (which has revolutionised libraries), MOOCs, or massive open online courses (which are revolutionising education), and M-Pesa (which revolutionised mobile banking in Kenya) suggests we should find solutions to language training that will draw on technology that is already widely available. If this were to happen there is potential for scientific higher education to make enormous strides in Africa.
But for this concept to be become a reality a critical mass of creativity will need to be mobilised. How can we make this happen? Mobilising around this question now would be beneficial — not least because it would show that champions of science and higher education will be ready to hit the ground running come 2016.