Novel ways to fund varsity education

University graduands toss in the air their caps after they graduated with different conferments. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

By 2035, there will be more young people entering the workforce in Africa each year than the rest of the world combined. The groundwork for quality education and jobs must begin now.

I recently spent a week with students at the University of Nairobi and was impressed by their energy, ideas, and enthusiasm. The generation now reaching adulthood is the best educated to date and as a result, demand for university studies is exploding.

But Kenyan universities are struggling to meet this surge in demand. I understand the same is true in many African countries.

The root of the problem is a finance gap. Universities all over the world struggle to raise money, but the problem is particularly pressing in Africa, with its hunger for education and the urgent need to equip surging numbers of young people with the skills and knowledge to ensure a brighter future.

In Africa, a million young people enter the labour force each month, but only one in four find a formal job, according to the World Bank. The continent needs more skilled people in work today and more skilled people to create the jobs of tomorrow.

With the right investment in education and entrepreneurship, the potential of Africa’s youth to transform the continent’s economies and societies through sustainable development is boundless.

How to close funding gap

Before the pandemic, African universities were estimated to need another $40 billion a year. That figure is almost certainly higher now. National governments cannot be expected to conjure up this investment. They have too many competing priorities.

But there is a solution that can unlock more resources for cash-strapped universities: partnerships with the private sector.

In my own country, the Netherlands, such partnerships have not only established academic centres of excellence but have also helped Dutch companies become global leaders in their fields. In the UK, Imperial College has attracted more than £250 million of industry research funding in the past five years, which explains why some of the world’s leading scientists want to work there.

California’s world-class universities exist in productive symbiosis with the tech giants of Silicon Valley, while other countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and China also nurture ties between academia and industry.

Some universities worry that academic freedom will be curtailed if they become too dependent on private funding. And it is true that in the past, certain industries did try to suppress the results of academic research—challenging studies that showed smoking causes cancer, for example, or that global warming is man-made. But with full transparency and the right safeguards, researchers can protect freedom of inquiry.

Working with industry partners gives universities access to resources, facilities, and data. It helps researchers target real world problems that need solutions. And it fosters an ethos of collaboration because the problems we face today—be they in energy, the environment, health or security, to name a few—are too complex to be tackled alone.

Scaling up African solutions

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the promise of vaccines and protective equipment that never materialised, was a wake-up call for many in Africa. It speeded a search for African solutions to African problems and for ways to scale up the best solutions locally. It showed that partnerships between universities and industry can act as a powerful catalyst for innovation.

There is a big push to train more engineers. Rwanda has set up an Innovation City in Kigali, home to Carnegie Mellon University Africa and engineering students from 19 countries. At the University of Nairobi, a partnership with French universities will see the creation of a new Engineering and Science Complex.

The University of Nairobi also has a new Agricultural Technology and Innovation Centre that is bringing industry, academia, and farmers together to accelerate research and development in farm productivity.

Higher education in Africa can be a gateway to prosperity. It alone can supply the skilled human capital that is needed for sustainable development and green growth. But fulfilling this role requires more resources than African universities have today. That is why partnerships between institutions of higher learning and the private sector are a triple win.

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