There is urgent need to invest in research in the universities

How can the link between universities and industries be strengthened in Nigeria? That was the question that engaged the attention of critical stakeholders in the education sector last week at a workshop on university-industry linkages. Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu, in his opening remarks said that African universities should start investing time and resources in technological research which could boost the productivity of industries.

The primary objective of the university –industry linkage, according to Adamu, “should be the applicability and adoption of technological research and development in the agreed areas of interest instead of producing many intellectual works with minimal or no impact on company productivity, innovation or efficiency and the expansion of the small and medium scale businesses”. The acting Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Professor Anthony Elujoba, who hosted the session, said commitment towards increasing research and intellectual outputs as well as facilitating university-industry linkages were crucial to the actualisation of the projection that Africa would be the continent of the future. But the second most populated continent in the world could only boast less than one per cent contribution to global research output.

Unfortunately, Nigeria exemplifies this dismal situation. In virtually all the universities in the country, little or no attention is paid to research. The little fund often budgeted for research in the public universities is hardly accounted for. To worsen matters, industries too hardly contribute to research and ironically help in stifling the climate for innovation. In most cases, industry involvement in universities is often restricted to endowment of professional chairs in some disciplines, construction of hostels or office blocks and perhaps donations of some laboratory equipment. That then explains why the research units of many of our tertiary institutions are starved of funds.

This appalling situation in the continent undoubtedly prompted some 15 African universities from eight countries, including University of Lagos, Ibadan and OAU, to launch an alliance at the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal. The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) as the group is called said it would build indigenous research excellence as a vital precondition for the continent “to develop and exert control over its future.” The alliance shares the aims of other research university consortiums around the world such as the League of European Research Universities and the Group of Eight in Australia. These institutions advocate strengthening research and postgraduate training in higher education. The initiative got powerful support at its launch from the African Union Commission even as we hope that African leaders would buy into the idea and support it.

The intention, according to Dr. Max Price of Cape Town University and the first chair of ARUA, is to “bring together our distinctive fields of expertise to achieve complementary and coordinated programmes of research and training, including addressing the key development priorities of the African continent.”

Universities and industries have been collaborating for decades because of mutual benefits while knowledge remains the key driver of growth and development. Indeed, the rise of a global knowledge economy has intensified strategic partnerships between the academia and the industries in the developed world since most of the big companies need good research to hone their competitive edge. According to reports, about 50 per cent of research funding in the universities comes from industries in the developed world.

Therefore, if the African continent wants to compete in the prevailing knowledge economy, its policymakers must ensure that the research departments of the universities are adequately and regularly funded. Industries must also enhance their attractiveness by going beyond the traditional funding of projects that contribute little or nothing to the socio-economic advancement of the country. They should invest some of their resources in research. That is the only way of tackling many prevailing social challenges in addition to driving economic growth.