Without doubt, our world will never be the same after COVID-19, which has so far claimed five hundred thousand plus precious lives worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University in the US and over one hundred recorded in Ghana by the Ministry of Health (MoH) since February 2020.
With no vaccine in sight, in at least, the next one year, we have got to learn to “live with it” and carry on with our normal lives. Given that, we need to keep to the MoH protocols: the use of face masks, social distancing, washing of hands under running water, the use of alcohol based hand sanitizer and staying at home. Besides, and on a more realistic note, we need to begin to assess our development infrastructure in response as a people, query our performance in the wake of the pandemic and take charge of our recovery in the coming months and years. Accordingly, our innovativeness, our science and level of technology should be our immediate mechanisms for hope and defence, which we need to tap into, particularly in times of need such as the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Specifically, we need to cross-examine the role of our universities and the university system, which should be our most reliable mechanisms to guide us with scientific research, knowledge, technology and innovation to pick up the bits and pieces in our post pandemic recovery. However, and most likely, our university system may be among the victims; perhaps yet to also request recovery packages with the least opportunity.
Indeed, the pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the global economy and certainly to that of Ghana and like many institutions in Ghana and elsewhere, our universities have now got to be called to action in the recovery and further growth and development of our health system and society as a whole. They cannot still remain as providers of only education and “blue sky” research, but will have to double as our sources of useful knowledge, science, technology and innovation. This can be done through university research centres, laboratories and networks in the discharge of their mandate to the nation. It must be noted that the world has experienced the most transformative innovations in recent days at the intersection of universities, industry and government, first proposed by Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff since 1997. Put in another way, tertiary education has today become a highly competitive global industry that has within the last three decades continued to grow and undergo tremendous changes gradually. Proactively, those changes have been responses to meet current industry demand for graduates with accredited, useful and applicable knowledge, competencies and skills.
Our universities and industry
COVID-19 has indicated to us that our universities need to consider some mission re-alignments to focus on the main purpose of their establishment per the Public University Act (PUA) 2020, which attaches significance to social engagement and direct economic impact. As a result, we need to re-design and construct an integrated national tertiary education system to fuse higher education, vocational and entrepreneurial training system together to prepare the next generation of graduates to think innovatively and create value. Surely, Ghana needs a university system that will aim for a more cogent combination of institutional and workplace learning. A combination of this nature will give our graduates the needed confidence and self-trust to venture into their own businesses and further create more jobs.
Among other reasons, public universities in Ghana are established; “with the aim of providing, creating, disseminating and preserving knowledge and understanding through teaching, skill development and research, scientific publications, technology transfer and extension and community service (PUA, 2020; Clause 1). The clause is to ensure that knowledge created in our universities do not always remain in shelves but be transferred to industry for innovation and wealth creation. Indeed, technology transfer is the order of the day among modern high ranking universities.
Today, our economic growth and development will depend on our commitments to increasing our capacity for innovation and to strengthening cooperation between universities, industry and government, which can speed up the translation of scientific and technological research results into products and services.
Fortunately, university governing councils have the freedom and power under the PUA 2020, not only to support the effective and efficient use of resources but also to “promote income-generating activities as part of the programmes of the public university”. Nowadays, universities need not to rely only on traditional sources of funding in the performance of their functions either. For universities to take advantage of “academic freedom”, the governing councils need sound understanding of university entrepreneurship, the third role of universities and co-opt industry representations in their midst. University Vice Chancellors need to have some industry experience to duly champion the course of this trilateral cooperation for the good of our innovation system.
The task ahead
I must acknowledge that there is a controversy over this proposition in the body of knowledge, thus; universities becoming enterprises, going into competition with industry and leading to needless tensions. Sceptics also advocate that universities should only enhance consultancy. Nonetheless, we know that some of our second generation universities in Ghana still lack the capacity for consultancy, leading to the fact that teaching and research in such universities become separated from industrial practice. Under the recent university mission, university research results and breakthroughs can be used to create spinout companies or be licensed out through the conversion of scientific and technological research results into products and services. Caveat, that is not to ignore teaching quality and academic rigour in this expansion of university system. Truly, I have no problem with a high standard of academic rigour and quality we seek to maintain. Even with that, we are still not in the space race; we cannot still conceive the idea of aircraft design. Also, I have no idea when we will manufacture our own equipment to drill our rich mineral resources we are endowed with and our high roads and inner-city inter-changes are constructed by foreign engineers. Worst of all, we still cannot feed ourselves well without importing food from less endowed countries whilst half of our active workforce is engaged in agriculture.
What is possible?
Additionally, universities can set up enterprises, just as some have started, to generate income to augment their internally generated fund and not always wait for the government. Thus; they can establish supermarket chains in and outside campuses, encourage students to develop their ideas and research project results for commercialisation. University researchers should also be challenged and encouraged to capitalise intellectual property, design and operate product lines and do the same for extra income.
As a matter of need, university investment in even non-traditional crops such as cashew and shea nut for research and future income sources can be made by universities today. In a more technical sense, the like of Suame Magazine in Kumasi and the Industrial Area in Tamale can be explored and innovatively exploited as innovation hubs and industrial networks for university knowledge commercialisation. The involvement of university research at these places will add more value and bring cutting-edge technology for us to support our industrialisation process after COVID-19. For instance, Silicon Valley is an innovation hub in the US, made of universities and industry, which eventually got the US Government interest and support to be behind most of the world’s cutting-edge technological innovations.
That is not all, our universities can obtain licences, bid for contracts to construct roads and carry out major capital projects using their own staff and students. Some of the graduates can be permanently employed and others on placement so that they can set up on their own when they complete. Our universities, their faculties and departments can register enterprises as manufacturers or wholesale distributors of any products they so choose and many more. More so, we need to introduce university science and business parks to get businesses to trust us and get in touch for consultancies.
To encourage productive entrepreneurial ecosystems, local governments can collaborate with universities to implement local innovation initiative investment funds. This fund can create, support and sustain the capacity for collaboration and start-up company formation in all universities and beyond. In fact, funding should be available for collaboration between research and education institutions, businesses and start-up communities. Through these, universities can set up business incubators and accelerators to offer the needed support for business growth and eventual survival in the market.
Truly, it is within our capabilities as a people, for, little did we know that we could produce face masks, solar hand washing machines, ventilators and hand sanitizers at such a high speed, which have now boosted industries in recent days. Ghana should not wait after COVID-19 for another millennium to produce underpants and bras only when we are dying. Our universities can do better to promote creativity and innovation to create jobs and help the economy and we all have shared and collective responsibilities for our own development.
The author is a private consultant in entrepreneurship and business development, Contact: 00233545581420; [email protected]