I have had an interesting Facebook engagement with the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union (UNZALARU) General Secretary, Dr. Kelvin Mambwe following my posts challenging the need for research and innovation enhancement at our public universities. My posts were ignited by the continuous call by the Higher Education Minister, Hon. Prof. Nkandu Luo on the need for universities to raise resources from within rather than heavily depend on government grants. This call by the Hon. Minister has not been well received, especially that it comes at a time when university lecturers have not been paid their salaries on time – a situation that has become an annual and monthly ritual for many years now.
What is evidently clear is that government is constrained in meeting its obligations with regards adequately funding higher education in Zambia. With many competing needs, and the heavy burden of foreign debt repayment, government funding cuts or delays are certain, and universities have not been spared, including university students whose monthly stipends/bursaries have been cut off completely.
These developments have caught off-guard our universities, and their response has been to down tools/go slow/strike petitioning government to meet its obligations and fund them. Others are saying that this is a clear case of ‘government failure’, and are hoping that a new government comes in which may fund universities better. What no one is saying, however, is that this challenge isn’t new, but importantly, that the universities themselves have over the years failed to be innovative enough to grow resilience and ensure some degree of self-sufficiency.
I think our universities, especially the top public universities have over the years failed to sufficiently add innovative value to society. While I cannot doubt the competence of their teaching having studied and taught at some, our universities have had little value beyond producing graduates for employment, filled with strong, though sometimes weak theoretical knowledge that lags behind the real developments in society and industry. Rather than being adaptive to the changing needs of society and industry to produce skills that are relevant to industry, our universities have, for the most part, remained far behind. This has made it hard for our graduates to have strong ‘labour market’ power beyond the country, and in some cases, particularly the science and technology skills, there has been need to re-train these once employed in industry, at a higher cost, leading to companies preferring expatriates who need no retraining.
I believe the role of universities transcends teaching. In fact, lecturers at our top universities carry the title of ‘Lecturer and Researcher’. However, there is little, if any, research going on in our universities. Actually, for the most part, the role of our lecturers has been reduced to teaching and marking tests and exams, and in occasional cases, commissioned research for ‘extra incomes’. This colleagues, has reduced the university’s value to a mere ‘place of work’ rather than a centre for academic thought and practical excellence. The argument I receive for the lack of research and innovation is that ‘government has not funded research’. This is the typical ‘Boma iyanganepo’ argument that we hear from the non-academics – and one begins to wonder what the difference is between those who have never been to school looking only upto to government for everything, and our highly educated academics doing the same – clearly we have failed ourselves here!
My highly educated colleagues further argue that without government grants, there is little, if any, research that can take place. I think this is the most absurd justification I have heard from people that have dedicated their time and training to academics. The argument is similar to what we have heard before from would be retirees that they will think of a business idea when they get their pension. I do not think it makes any sense for academics to wait for funding for them to develop research ideas. On the contrary, research ideas should be penned down every day for one whose life is centred on a university – from their reading and the students’ ideas. Ideas from or for research should be enough, if of social, business or national value, to attract funding from many sources – government or the private sector. In this regard, I argue that our universities must be flexibible, innovative and must adapt to the changing needs of society for them to remain relevant now and in the future. They must begin to see themselves as drivers of thought entrepreneurship through academic excellence for private and public sector growth.
Perhaps more than anything, let us ask ourselves, how many enterprises have been born as spinoffs from our local universities which have been in existence for over 50 years? Enterprises born out of university as either student led of lecturer lead reflect the depth of university research, but importantly, its relevance to society that a profitable enterprise can be created. In any case, as motivational speakers repeatedly say, the world rewards you for the value you bring to the society: All the wealthy people in the world created their wealth from providing innovative solutions to the world’s problems. If that be the case, what better place to generate innovative solutions to Zambia’s problems than our universities? The fact that there are very few, almost non-existent spin-offs from university research illustrates how impotent, irrelevant or non-existent our research at top university is/has been. How many patents have come out of our university research? How far have the researchers gone to market such research? How much valuable collaborative and contract research have our researchers generated? What has been the value of this research? How much mentorship have our “dons” provided to their graduates to follow-through their ideas and make them successful outside university?
The fact that our highly educated lecturers and researchers sing the ‘Boma iyanganepo’ slogan, that they need money to ‘think and be innovative’ does not inspire confidence for the innovative and academic future of our country. It is disappointing that academics will talk about an ‘enabling environment’ for research, the way that our business community talk about an ‘enabling environment’ for business when, in the same environment, foreign firms are thriving. The private sector in Zambia cries foul saying they lack capital for them to grow their business. Is it a coincidence that now our academics are also saying they need funds to think innovatively? Perhaps it is a nationwide problem, a reflection our lack of higher levels of ambition? Think about it, really, why would a university that teaches PhDs have over 60% of its staff without PhDs? How can someone be teaching for over 20 years with just an MSc/MA at a top university that has been around for over 50 years?
This is grossly unacceptable!
As I conclude, let me reiterate the need to enhance both the quantum and quality of university research. I disagree that our top academics need funds to think innovatively, rather, they need to reorient their position and appreciate that they already are in a position of privilege surrounded by insurmountable resource in thought of their students and their academic community to do more than sing ‘boma iyanganepo’. I would like to end by quoting part of Sir Andrew Witty’s Review of Universities and Growth – Encouraging a British Invention Revolution – published in 2013 in which he says:
“I likened universities generating cutting edge research and its resulting insights to the tip of an arrow, with the arrowhead behind it representing the economic activity enabled by research-led innovation. I suggested that maximising the size of these arrowheads and their economic benefit…. is fundamental to both sectoral and local growth strategies.”
The value of the education is not in its possession, but in its use to solving the challenges of our society.
Economist & Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, UK.