Universities, Pandemics (Minus Politics)

Feature Article Universities, Pandemics Minus Politics
MAY 8, 2020 LISTEN

Let’s get this right off the bat: this article is not necessarily about just graduates and graduands of universities. This article is about the institution—universities themselves.

Global Knowledge Age

This close-knit global community the world has grown into is ruled by knowledge. Nations which find clever ways of employing knowledge render themselves competitive­, across sectors, in this fast-paced global age. If it be undeniably true, that this Information Age, this highly Industrialised Age rides on knowledge; and if it be true too that knowledge itself is mutable—it changes constantly and quickly—then what institution in a nation stands the best chance of helping said nation adapt to this ever-changing knowledge age? Institutions of higher learning.

There is nothing new about this question asked and the answer given it, for all over the world, countries in their journeys towards development found this to be true: that there is a direct relationship between higher learning and development. So these nations were quick to adopt policies that fostered Public/Private Partnerships, University/Industry collaborations, and undertook the creation of what we call Research Universities with the intention of helping spur their national development agendas. And this worked! This began, in the now developed world, a trend of research universities, technological institutions, springing up; in Germany, USA, Japan, UK et al, tertiary institutions were the new El Dorado.

A World Quietly shaped by Research Universities

The decades that followed saw major contributions by these tertiary institutions to the stock of global knowledge, to science and technology. Across all sectors and fields, the immense contributions of universities were felt. In manufacturing, agriculture, information technology—and the reason for this article—in global health, such contributions remain pronounced. In these countries, tertiary institutions were provided funds to carry out basic and applied research. Now the world around you has been greatly shaped by these nations’ investments in their universities—the internet, television, Google, smartphones, computers, etc. all have their foundation in researches by these universities. In health: antibiotics (eg. Tuberculosis antibiotics), anti-malarial drugs, insulin, chemotherapy drugs, vaccines (for polio, Hepatitis B, Flu etc.), medical devices like CAT scan, MRI scan, pacemaker, x-ray, et al, also are products of university research. The list is truly long.

Universities worldwide—unless, heaven forbid, you buy into the ideology of a low-IQ African race!—have the capacity to effect change in the field of science, technology, and innovation, ergo in national development and global advancement. Yet, they are easily crippled by one key ingredient—FUNDING.

Let’s talk money.

Here is where African countries have a problem. We feel we barely have enough money to go around—to solve much more pressing national issues such as: the provision of basic infrastructure and amenities that we cannot afford to divert our attention to the fanciful—the creation of research oriented universities. First, research universities are not luxury; they are necessary for national development. They form part of the key ingredients needed to realistically guarantee a nation a place in this highly competitive age.

Second, one glaring flaw in our national thinking emerges—the government-alone mentality. Government to play superman—and African governments seem to want to play superman. A study into the experiences of the developed world shows that from their inception, universities had had to depend hugely on funding from the government in their pursuit towards advancement of science. However, this same journey through their history shows how the private sector has had to contribute enormously to these research universities—in the form of university/industry partnerships

University/Industry Partnerships

The magic of this union is: one has the brain; the other, the money. When these two forces meet what ensues is the advancement of innovation and technology transfer. Universities’ knowledge and industries’ expertise combine to spew a culture of entrepreneurships. Universities ability to conduct basic and applied research, combined with industry’s knack for practicalism help spawn useful inventions. But this formidable pairing can never truly and effectively happen, if the government does not take the first step in its policy directions towards making true this longstanding dream of a research-university-driven nation. This dream has been borne in the Ghanaian/African consciousness as early as the 1950s.

COVID-19 and Universities

Fast-forward to today, as the world battles its most far-reaching coronavirus, we see yet again, the vast influence of these tertiary institutions worldwide—who have this culture of research and innovation. The UK government, through its agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), provided funding of £24.6 million to researchers to undertake researches across diverse fields: in vaccine development, clinical trial, therapy development, antibody testing, etc. as part of a move it terms rapid research response to COVID-19. What is telling about this, is the large number of universities on the receiving end of these funds: Imperial College London, University College London, Oxford University, University of Edinburg, etc.

On the Association of American Universities (AAU)’s website, in a section titled Confronting COVID-19, one is taken through series of researches underway in the nation’s universities: “America’s leading research universities are at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19... This kind of research is made possible by a robust government-university partnership…” it reads. It then proceeds to list—well, I lost count—a huge number of researches being conducted by American universities nationwide.

I proceeded on to the website of the Association of African Universities (AAU)—an entity doing amazing work in the country and across the continent, with the little they have—one could almost sense their dissatisfaction, as the only high-end research in the short list of African universities’ contribution to COVID-19 research they could provide was that of Africa Centre for Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Redeemer’s University, Nigeria.

In my shortlist of personal contact, I have at least six people who all have developed comprehensive, strategic projects intended to spur this agenda of putting universities where they truly belong—as engine for growth, yet each needing some form of governmental partnerships to effect these projects. Every time we meet, we sigh heavily from exhaustion, wondering if there will ever come a time when African governments will truly open their arms to private-sector assistance in such fields.

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