Here’s the thing about universities in developing countries: they were designed for a past age. In Latin America, the dominant model was that of Napoleon’s Universite de France – a single university for an entire country, which was all the rage among progressives for the first half of the nineteenth century. In Africa (and parts of Asia), it was a colonial model – whatever the University of London was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities (the bigger ones, anyway) in Anglophone Africa are set up to do now. We think of universities as being about teaching and research; by and large, in the global south, universities were about training future governing elite and transmitting ideology.
Of course, for a long time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge institutions in the direction of modernization. By and large, the preference seems to be something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies, more of an emphasis of knowledge creation, etc. This has been a tough shift, and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.
The problems are manifold. If you want research, you need PhDs. In much of Africa and Latin America, less than half of full-time academics have them. And because only PhDs can give PhDs that’s a pretty serious bottleneck. A few years ago, South Africa announced that it wanted to triple the number of PhDs in the country. Great, said the universities. Who’s going to train them?
And of course you need money, but that’s in exceedingly short supply. Money for equipment, for instance (quick, how many electron microscopes are there in sub-Saharan African universities? Take out South Africa, and I’m pretty sure the answer is zero). But also money for materials, dissemination, conferences, etc. In some African flagship universities, close to 80% of money for research comes from foreign donors. That money is welcome, of course, but it means your research programs are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programs.
As for being market-focused: how does that work in countries where 80% of the formal economy is dominated by government and parastatals? What’s even the point of building up a good reputation for graduating employable students when public sector HR managers aren’t allowed to discriminate between universities when hiring?
Now, making things worse are some fairly worrying macro-economic trends. Not the commodities collapse, thought that doesn’t help. No, it’s the secular change in the way development is actually happening; specifically, that countries are starting to de-industrialize at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity (a phenomenon that economist Dani Rodrik explains very well here). To put it bluntly, countries are no longer going to be able to get rich through export-driven manufacturing. There aren’t going to be any more Taiwans or Koreas. In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.
This, to put it mildly, places enormous pressure on countries to have institutions that are knowledge-intensive and market-oriented. When human capital trained for services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in a society that already has a major manufacturing base. Simply put, no good universities, no development. And that’s a world first because the developed world – including China – got rich before it got good universities. It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.
But it’s a job for which these universities are simply not ready. In Africa at least, even when the nature of the challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but also they simply lack entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialization projects.
Getting a whole new set of challenges when you’ve barely got to grips with the old ones is a tall order. It’s a structural issue that international development and co-operation agencies need to think about, and invest in more than they currently do.