Higher learning; low expectations

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It was on February 14, 2019 that this writer wrote an article with a misleading title: ‘THIS IS NOT FOR RICH PEOPLE’ it said—when in fact, it was an exposition into the nation and continent’s industrialisation journeys. It proffered public/private partnerships, university/industry collaborations, the creation of research universities et al. as sure ways of fueling this sluggish journey. It did not help that the first line of that article read, “You need money to make money.” The writer got a number of feedback commenting how true it was that one needed money to make money. They really did missed the point—but I digress.

A Brainy World

A country is only as good as its demonstration of brain prowess—in this information age. In this close-knit global community, a nation is only as good as its ability to join the knowledge-hunt race. And if a nation is to render itself competitive, it ought to understand this key feature of knowledge: its mutability. Knowledge is fluid; it is subject to constant and rapid changes; it runs with the speed of lightning, yet its indispensability requires of nations to chase it; with all they have got, nations must invest profusely in knowledge to buy themselves a place on the international plane.

If these facts be undoubtedly true, then one is right in wondering: which body or institution in a country is of a nature that makes it the forerunner in spearheading the nation’s journey towards catching up, and positively affecting this global knowledge age? Call them institutions of higher learning, tertiary institutions, universities—the essence is same.

In this article, as done in ‘This Is Not For Rich People’, we prove the indomitability of universities as engines for growth—we show in more specialised terms their contributions to global health.

The Successful Copycats

What Ghanaian universities are now, the developed world’s universities have been in time past—and have evolved therefrom. Universities from their inception, were intended to serve as teaching grounds, places for the attainment of a sense of value, social standing, and self-worth for individuals. But the developed world have quickly morphed their universities from this solely individualistic nature; they have individually uplifted their tertiary institutions from mere grounds for education and training—from mere Teaching Universities, to Research, Entrepreneurial, and Developmental Universities, serving the common good.

For centuries to come, these countries were to painstakingly elevate their tertiary institutions to positions of engines of growth. Universities were to employ their principal tool—knowledge, for the advancement of science, technology, and innovation. This trend of a higher-purposed university was to proliferate and succeed in Germany, USA, UK, Japan, etc. There is no shame in playing copycats when the advancement of a nation is at stake. For the notion of a university-driven development agenda, for instance, is not an invention of the West, neither is it of Asia, it is common sense—hence, should be commonplace.

El Dorado

By the 19th century, universities of the developed world had found their place as the new El Dorado, serving well, their new-found purpose advancing global science, and spurring the developments of their respective countries. Ours is a world quietly shaped by universities—other countries’ universities to be precise. In manufacturing, agriculture, information technology, and—the reason behind this article—global health, universities’ impact, be they direct or indirect, can be felt overtly and covertly.

Countries in the wake of the realisation of the vast potentials of universities, scraped the bottom of the barrels to provide funding for these institutions to conduct basic and applied researches. The world continues to benefit immensely from these investments made by these countries. The internet, web browsers, Google, computers, smartphones, touchscreens, radio, television etc. all were invented by or have their foundations in researches by various universities across the globe.

In health, antibiotics (like Tuberculosis antibiotics), insulin, anti-malarial drugs, chemotherapy drugs, vaccines (for polio, Hepatitis B, flu etc.); medical procedures such as artificial blood transfusion, artificial insemination, open heart surgery, bone marrow transplant, etc.; medical devices like pacemaker, x-ray, MRI scan, CAT scan, heart-lung machine, ultrasound, etc. are also products of universities. It is a very long list!

No Nation of Fools

It is brutal having to sit through recommendations of a university-driven economy made to the African continent—by the developed world. For such recommendations always are pandering, and have a tinge of condescension—one that wonders more than it employs: wonders why this sole continent has failed in replication—in employing too this developmental tool. Then one begins to sense in their recommendations a masked chalking-up: an unintelligent black race, it begins to feel like they are saying.

All people interspersed throughout the world have the capacity to effectively transform their human resource capital, their institutions of higher learning into drivers for this new age economic tool, information technology—and the not-so-new one, industrialisation. Ghana/Africa’s weakness is not in her mental prowess but in priority

Money and the diverse ways to find it.

You hear our leaders complain often of a government-to-do-all populace—that the average Ghanaian shuns inclusiveness. I have come to find the opposite to be true—precisely, that Ghanaian governments are Kafka’s Poseidon—the government seems to want to do it all. Perhaps, it is for a need for an unadulterated, unshared political point and acclaim that they behave so—because they seem to want to carry the burden alone.

Or, perhaps it is due to the fact that this development imperative, not yet ingrained in the public consciousness, is just best swept under the carpet, for it does not earn as quick a return as say, building a new school block. And this has such long-term and everlasting repercussions, one that is being experienced by the country and continent.

For our universities—supposed to be institutions of higher learnings—are looked on with low expectations: educate these students, mark their exam papers, grade them and graduate them—that, in a nutshell, seems to be our only expectations from these knowledge institutions.

Changing Poseidon

The boost in the mandates of tertiary institutions is not a luxury to be postponed by a nation to when said nation becomes developed, it is necessary towards securing development. It is not so dispensable to be swept under the carpet without consequence. The bottom-line then is: Ghana must find ways of coming up with the money. The Ghanaian must be educated about this developmental imperative so as to insist upon it.

The richest of the world’s economies, sometime in their development journeys, quickly realised the harm it caused dumping the duty of creating research universities on their governments alone. These governments, knowing the benefits of giving their institutions of higher learning higher purposes laid (and are staying laying) the foundation for series of public/private partnerships, university/industry collaboration, all the while keeping state funds coming, towards the realisation of their aspirations of a university-led development agenda.

University/Industry Collaborations

It is a match made in heaven—for brains to meet means. As universities strive for the perfection and proliferation of knowledge, industry does same for skill; a collaboration in effort then spews in both institutions, a culture of entrepreneurships and innovation, knowledge and technology transfer, increased profitability and relevance; for the nation, these in turn spur economic growth.

Universities are able to effectively pair their basic and applied research, with industry’s demand and knack for practicality to spur innovations that have real and immediate relevance. However, for such partnerships to effectively happen and be sustainable, the government must take the first step towards its realisation.

Universities against COVID-19

UK

Today, as the world contends with its most far-reaching coronavirus, and its umpteenth zoonotic disease, the world sees ones again, glaringly, the vast potentials of universities. The UK government, through its agency the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), in an initiative it has aptly described as a rapid research response to COVID-19, signed off £24.6 million to researchers to undertake researches in various thematic fields towards this fight against the pandemic. What is particularly remarkable about this investment is the massive amount that went to various universities’ researchers.

Oxford University, University of Oxford, University College of London, University of Edinburg, Imperial College London, etc. are among the large number of universities trusted with the task of leading the coronavirus research. So in UK, as we sit, a vast number of university researchers are ardently conducting researches in vaccine development, clinical trials, therapy development, antibody testing, et al.

USA

American universities have, since the outbreak, had their numerous universities conducting researches across various lines. These universities are either undertaking these researches independently; collaborating with the government, private institutions, other universities, or public and private labs across the globe. Various universities are working on vaccine and antiviral drug development.

University of Pittsburg is collaborating with scientist in Italy and France to develop a vaccine. Harvard University is working on a specialised vaccine development research—one targeted at treating the virus in the older generation as they are the most susceptible to the disease. In the University of Nebraska Medical Centre and University of California, testing for antiviral drugs are still ongoing.

Some universities are conducting researches that are furthering our understanding of the virus. In Johns Hopkins University, University of Washington, and Stanford University, researchers have developed a rapid screening test system, one that has amped up testing potential to as many as 1,500 tests per day. In the University of Texas, a researcher has developed a 3D model of the virus which is helping researchers get a better understanding of the makeup of the virus so as to effectively work towards antiviral drugs and vaccine developments.

In the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and University of California, researchers have found similarities between SARS and COVID-19 such as will allow drugs developed for the former be potentially repurposed for the latter.

Universities like Harvard, MIT, and University of Chicago are also churning out protective equipment for health officials and individuals—PPEs such as gloves, masks, gowns, face shields etc. They have developed and are distributing testing materials and equipment—e.g. specimen collection kits, as done by the University of Arizona. Universities are also lending their state-of-the-art infrastructure towards this fight—their modern laboratories, dormitories serving as interim hospitals, et al.

The writer cannot possibly do the developed world justice in this regard—listing the contributions of their research universities in the fight against COVID-19—for such an article would prove too long.

AAU v. AAU

As one navigates the website of the Association of African Universities (AAU)—an institution headquartered in Ghana, and one that truly gives hope to this movement for a university-led development—one finds, in the scant list provided for the high-end research conducted by African universities just one actual high-end research: the genomic sequencing done by African Centre for Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Redeemer’s University, Nigeria—the first African country to do so.

We can add Ghana’s Noguchi Medical Research Institute genomic sequencing to the list too. Genomic sequencing: a baby step in the vast requirements needing fulfilment to further our understanding of the virus. African researchers have the potential to do much more. They are in dire need of our confidence—of funding.

If one ventures into the Association of American Universities (AAU)’s website, one finds it futile the attempt to read all the number of researches listed as being conducted by universities in the country—for it is an enormous list. And America, not being one for meekness, have plastered on the site, these words: “America’s leading research universities are at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19…” They are quick to add, “…This kind of research is made possible by a robust government-university partnership.”

Put your money where your brain is

Here in Ghana, our universities (with their professors, graduates, and graduands), ambitious institutions such as Association of African Universities (AAU), equally capable, equally willing, are forced into mediocrity (or, quite frankly, something below that) when it comes to the advancement of science. For our governments fail to see themselves as indispensable factors in securing this highly consequential link—between universities, advancement of science, and development, across all sectors.

The writer is first to admit that the nation’s preventive fight against the virus needs lauding, but we do not need to be facing death, impending death, or possible annihilation to realise the dire need for scientific research and the investment therein.

The people are willing and waiting…on the Government

The people are willing, some have laid the grounds; the people are waiting on the government—at this point, this really is the bottom-line. Some stakeholders in this field—knowing how vital it is to equip universities to serve as research hubs of the nation—have developed potentially propitious projects aimed at helping this dream become a reality. One finds themselves very humbled by the yearning in our nation’s universities to rise to this purpose.

Universities in the country have proved themselves very willing and open to recommendations, projects that will take them a step closer to this higher purpose. But this one problem remains: for such an expansive national initiative to be successful, governmental involvement is indispensable.

All that is to be hoped for when this initiative is carried out without the government is, at best, very small scale researches—one that will be but a pin in the haystack of relevant global research.

For Ghana to effectively rise, in this highly globalised age, to the position of prominence in global research—one that will spur national benefits such as; the increase in entrepreneurships, decrease in unemployment, increased standard of living, and an overall economic and socio-economic development—the government must respond to the call on it by universities and the private sector. Africa contributes an embarrassing less than 1 percent to global research. Do you know how much Ghana contributes to this? (I am sorry; my phrasing was misleading. I do not know what the answer is—I am asking. But one can easily decipher that the number is so low it is pretty much non-existing)

The writer has a circle of enthusiasts, and share with them this inside joke: it is by far harder to get our governments (past and present) excited about a great, patriotic initiative, than it is to effectively run an illegal scheme in the country. Each has on their own, comprehensive and full-proof projects intended to help spur this higher-purposed university agenda. We meet and scratch our beards (females playing with their non-existing beards) as we inquire of one another, our individual progresses with the leviathan—the government. The answer is always same, “Err…”

>>>the author is a co-founder, Blarney Stone Inc. (BSI Africa). She can be reached on [email protected] BSI Africa is an organisation that specialises in the creation of policy-initiating programmes aimed at spurring our country and continent toward economic and socio-economic development. www.blarneystoneinc.com 

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