African universities: Education with a purpose

Fred Swaniker Correspondent
IN the last two decades, university rankings have gained prominence as a standard for benchmarking the quality of universities across the world.

These rankings measure the performance of universities based on key factors needed in the production of graduates, scientific knowledge or technology — whether they involve financial, human, social or even reputational capital. Building a ranking system on such premises encourages universities to focus their energies on “input” factors such as financing, the number of professors, the research facilities, the number of books in an institution’s library, the number of research publications, and so on.

Within this system, there are gaping methodological problems. The most obvious is the false premise that the amount of resources expended on education is a good indicator of the quality of graduates. These problems beg the question of what purpose university rankings serve.

What Africa needs is a ranking system that measures universities relative to their success in achieving Africa’s own goals, not one that aims to replicate institutions that were built for a different context and different time.

This has important implications. First and foremost, ranking systems must have a purpose. We must rank universities against their “outputs”, not their inputs. Of all the output measurements that Africa needs at this moment, the most important is a university’s ability to impart skills that growing African economies need now and in the future.

Ranking frameworks should track the percentage of a given university’s graduates who find jobs, the number of entrepreneurs the university creates, and how many jobs those entrepreneurs generate. They should assess the efficacy of skills transferral to graduates, and not only academic “credits” (which are based on the number of hours students spend in class versus what they are actually learning in class).

Africa’s advantage is that its higher education system provides a relatively clean slate to innovate an entirely new model of higher education, unlike old Western universities that are set in their ways.

This is the exciting possibility that a rigorous and relevant ranking system presents. The aspirational framework of an African learning system must aim at reorienting education from abstract learning to targeted skills-based learning. To demonstrate true mastery of concepts, for example, engineering graduates should be required to show a portfolio of applied projects versus simply a high score on a final exam.

Critical thinking skills should be demonstrated through solving real-world problems and not by a graduate’s ability to recall facts and figures. Good university programmes should integrate entrepreneurship and leadership training in their curriculum, so that they produce graduates who have the soft-skills to play an impactful role in Africa’s economic transformation, and who come out not as job-seekers but as job creators. Eventually, aligning education to the demands of the market requires that we measure how successfully universities fuse the lecture hall with the world of work.

Learning should allow students to immediately apply their lessons in real world scenarios so that they understand how ideas work in practice. Learning how to learn Any framework that ranks universities presupposes a pedagogic context. We live in a brave new world of dynamic economies that demand constant changes in our ways of working, in the skills set required to perform particular jobs and in the creation and acquisition of new skills.

Many jobs that existed 10 years ago are extinct today, just as many jobs that exist today will not exist in 10 years’ time. In order to keep pace with such a dynamic environment, it is critical that education becomes less concerned with the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but for a purpose. The quality of a good graduate is therefore not only the skills they come out of university with, but their ability to learn new skills. In other words, the fundamental purpose of a university should shift from ‘learning facts and figures’ to ‘learning how to learn’.

What is necessary is a pedagogical shift from the outdated, traditional ‘just-in-case’ learning to a more dynamic ‘just-in-time’ mode of education. ‘Just-in-time’ learning implies life-long learning of new skills in response to changing market needs. The shift means that, learning is not constrained within the limits of a four-year degree, but rather it is a pursuit that never stops. University moves from being a one-shot game to an experience that people rotate in and out of for the rest of their life, between periods of full-time work.

Finally, a more relevant ranking system for African universities must encourage a new pedagogy oriented towards addressing Africa’s unique challenges involving urbanisation, unemployment, education, infrastructure development, healthcare, governance and climate change.

It should orient students to capture Africa’s unique opportunities in areas such as agriculture, natural resource management, arts and design, and tourism. With such ‘learning for a purpose’, students will be challenged to define a ‘mission’ for their life, and not simply to declare an academic ‘major’ from a set menu, as is the case today.

For instance, if a student’s mission is to develop a solution for affordable urban housing in Maputo, her learning could be a personalised, self-designed inter-disciplinary study of urban planning, sociology, transportation, architecture, civil engineering, sanitation, water, and even how technology can be used to create smart cities. The point is to define a new set of standards for Africa, which will measure and guide progress towards an elevated pedagogy aimed at producing innovative, conscientious and employable citizens who are well equipped to solve Africa’s unique challenges and to catalysing economic transformation.

Too often, as Africans, we seek validation from the rest of the world. We lack the confidence to define our own standards. The existing global university ranking systems mimic university models created for an era that is very different from what we see today. By aspiring to so-called global standards, we risk limiting our progress in Africa. We have the opportunity to leapfrog and build the universities of the future in Africa. Our lack of legacy systems frees us from the tyranny of outmoded measures of quality and outdated methods of pedagogy. We have an unusual chance to set a new standard that the world will follow instead. When it comes to university education, it is time for African nations to be bold, have confidence in ourselves, and adopt ‘new practice’, not blindly copy so-called global ‘best practice’.

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