Universities’ future lies in innovation

Discussions on the role of higher education in Kenya tend to hark back to quality assurance.

Seeking to improve quality is important. But the larger issue is whether the education system meets contemporary economic and social needs.

The way forward for Kenya might, in fact, lie in the past. The University of Nairobi has its origins in the Royal Technical College founded in 1956 to build technical skills. This vision incorporated interest in the Asian community to create capacity in the arts, science and commerce.

But Kenya’s higher education evolution took a different turn with the creation of the Royal College of Nairobi in 1961. Its focus shifted from building technical capacity to creating functionaries for the post-colonial civil service.

Technical fields such as commerce and architecture were relegated to diplomas for qualification for professional bodies. Full degrees were accorded higher status and were awarded by the University of London. This history set the tone for today’s higher education status. The 35 public universities and constituent colleges (as well as 33 private universities) have not fully adjusted their missions to reflect sustainable development needs.

Universities are an expression of the national laws upon which they are founded. Like any organism, it is not possible to change its charactering without re-engineering its DNA to enable it to adjust to a changed environment.

Addressing Kenya’s sustainable development needs as recently articulated by the first Chancellors’ Convention in Nairobi (January 25–26, 2017) requires going beyond the traditional model where universities focus on generating knowledge. They need an expanded mission that also includes contributing directly to sustainable development.

This requires integrating research, teaching, extension, and commercialisation to create what can be referred to as innovation universities.

Today, research predominantly occurs in national institutes, which do not teach. Without students, they lack effective ways to transmit knowledge into society or to the next generation. The retirement of researchers often leads to the degradation of research capacity.

Universities, on the other hand, have limited research funding. This is partly because much of the available research funding goes to national institutes. One of the impacts of this separation is that teaching is conducted without steady reliance of new research. It decays over time.

Not every institution of higher learning should aspire to be an innovation university. Diversity is needed in higher education to meet differentiated sustainable development goals. Kenya’s economy is growing in complexity while demand for university education is rising. University admission has risen from 80,916 in 2003 to more than 500,000 in 2016. A uniform model from last century cannot meet today’s needs.

Innovation universities can play a role in helping prepare a large part of this student body to contribute to the productive sector. There are at least three ways to establish such universities. The first is to set up new innovation universities from scratch. Though desirable, this approach would require large initial financial outlays.

The second option is to build upon ongoing activities to strengthen the research and commercialisation activities of existing universities.

This option can function in a select number of universities, especially those with charters that allow them to operate as innovation universities.

For example, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture (JKUAT) already operates as an innovation university because its charter provides for it. JKUAT has created the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park to promote product commercialisation. The university pioneered the commercialisation of tissue culture bananas and has a track record in moving from ideas from research to commercialisation.

Universities have considerable flexibility and can evolve into innovation institutions with enabling leadership. The decision of the University of Nairobi to create a US$1 billion fund to support business start-ups created in the institution in partnership with firms such as Safaricom is an illustration of the scope for internal evolution.

Finally, these two approaches could be complemented by adding graduate education and business incubation to national research institutes. Candidates for such upgrading include the Kenya Medical Research Institute. This approach could be extended to other research institutes as well as to research wings of private and public corporations.

These new innovation universities would be funded through internal capacity development budgets. They would still be regulated by the education ministry but granted the autonomy to operate under parent institutions. Creating innovation universities can be pursued through a new policy framework, enabling legislation, and an experimental approach that builds on existing practices.

A national survey ongoing in fields such as telecommunications, agriculture, industry, energy, services and wildlife management could reveal new areas that can be upgraded to create innovation universities.

This process requires the education ministry to function as an enabler and not just as an enforcer of existing regulation.

Lessons from the experiences of universities should help to contribute to legislative reform. An evidence-driven national dialogue involving government, universities, industry, and relevant sections of civil society could help generate ideas for regulatory reform.

Expanding higher education base by setting up innovation universities will help improve the quality of teaching, make research more relevant to economic and social needs, and bolster the direct contributions of universities to development.

Professor Calestous Juma is a Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and co-chair of the African High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies of the African Union. He is author of Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technology. Twitter@Calestous