Monday, 21 July 2014

The Changing Landscape of Education in Africa

The president and director of the London School of Economics (LSE) Craig Calhoun, visited Ghana last month where he met with Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey to express LSE’s interest in collaborating with educational institutions in Africa. With Ghana tagged among the worlds fastest growing economies (although I’m not sure this still stands after recent development) LSE joins the list of western institutions/organisations looking to strengthen ties on the continent. Joy Seanehia, Master in Public Health student at Universit√© Paul Sabatier currently on an internship program at the Noguchi Memorial Institute of Medical Research gives an account of the evening.

“When Africa rises, a strategist wouldn’t want to miss out – Joy Seanehia”


On the 23rd of June, I was told that one of my Nigerian friends was going to be in town from London. Since I myself had only been in town for a few weeks and was still getting accustomed to the change that the last 4years had seen since my last visit, I thought we could be tourists together and discover Accra. So far, I had the reputation of asking questions like ‘where is Kaneshie? Is Kasoa next to Dansoman? Where is Abelemkpe? How much should I pay the taxi driver?’ Those I would consider proper tourist questions so why stop now?
Regardless, I was up for the challenge and I was to be the one showing her around. I spend a lot of my time in Legon (home of the University of Ghana) at the research institute, Noguchi where I do my internship so when my friend said she had a meeting with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey I thought it perfect for us to meet up for lunch on or around campus. I did some homework so I don’t come across as completely clueless regarding eating places. It turned out that plan of mine wasn’t to be. What happened instead was my Nigerian friend, Sakina Sakina Badamasuiy of the London School of Economics (LSE) Alumnus who was in my home country ended up inviting me to the dinner with Prof Aryeetey, the LSE Director and his team, it wasn’t in Legon either. That is just typical of Sakina to make IT happen even on my own soil. She thought it a complement when she was being taken for a Ghanaian, so I guess that makes her one of us now!
Getting to the location, La-badi Beach hotel, took me out of my geographical comfort zone again, but I made my way there, gauging how much time to give myself using the expert advice of a friend, former colleague and partner in crime Jolene. In the taxi, the driver was surprised when I asked how far away we were from Labadi beach but I didn’t bother explaining why I spoke impeccable twi engaging him on issues in the Ghanaian cultures and religions but didn’t know one of Accra’s most popular hang outs. Once there, I got the cardie/tuk tuk ride to Sakina’s hotel building which was about 5 metres from the reception. I thought it a waste to be driven that distance but who was I to complain, instead I posed!

not enough time to focus camera for the picture and are here

The reunion was lovely and a chance to quickly catch up on shoes and scarfs (typical gals) before going down to mingle with the LSE team she brought along and wait for the invited guests to arrive.
In the presidential dining room, when Craig Calhoun LSE president and Director of the LSE arrived, the evening’s event kicked off. At the time, I had no idea who he was so yes I did put the kart before the horse and browsed LSE president Craig Calhoun’s blog AFTER dinner. This was even more necessary as I left the dinner table still unclear about what exactly LSE was hoping to gain from engaging with Africa on the educational front. I wondered about what the LSE stood to gain from investing 25% of its most impressive research on the continent.
With our plates covered with the condiments from the buffet, our glasses filled and introductions covered, Craig broke the ice with a joke of not needing the microphone as he came from a long line of preachers. He spoke of the LSE’s wish to collaborate with educational institutions in Africa, and rebuild the relationship which wasn’t a new one but dated back to the colonial times. He didn’t fail to mention our 3 presidents who were products of his university, including our very own independence fighter Dr Kwame Nkrumah. In the midst of all that seriousness, the only acclaimed politician among us succumbed to his edge to announce his blood link to the person on page 10 of the LSE brochure on our seats which no one had yet opened. It looked like he didn’t want to waste any time in informing that a former president and product of the LSE, Dr Hilla Limann was his uncle. I don’t know how useful that information was in advancing the evening’s proceedings, but it wouldn’t be a business dinner without such light moments, especially from a distracted politician. If you are eager to know who the 3rd Ghanaian president who also went through the LSE was, here you have it; Professor Atta Mills. Craig continues on to recount the reasons for the quiet periods that their relationship with the African countries saw. He made it clear that they were now back on the continent to rekindle the embers of the African fire that once went dim. He reminded us of what LSE is about; the betterment of society using world leading research. Aside from all the wonderful research they were about, he spoke of the need for these experts to connect with each other and share ideas. Partnership within the institution and with those beyond is essential if we want to connect with the local needs, he added.
At some point in the evening, the politician chipped in with some complaints about the polytechnics going on strike and resisting the change being applied to their allowance. What is more vivid to me was how proud he was of his alumnus, Reading University. To this Dr Abu Sakara Foster joined in though he was also in support of the LSE alumnus, among which was his son Seidu. Being the former CPP presidential candidate for 2008 he was very believable when he advised the university heads to keep politics to the minimum.
Professor Aryeetey took over the microphone and gave us the Ghanaian perspective on the Changing landscape of Education in Africa. He outlined the challenges the University of Ghana faces from the competition coming from private universities. He then expanded on the loss and gain of income from international fees paid by our fellow Nigeria students. He stressed on the partnerships that exists even with those who should otherwise be considered as competition, how this exchange was good and why it should be embraced by leadership in universities across Africa. An example of that is seen with the University of Ghana learning from the corporate principles from Ashesi University. This is an example of how to bridge the gap between the public and the private sector. He called on more of such partnerships among the different universities on the continent to allow for the development of new programmes to benefit us all.

Professor Aryeetey, the Vice Chancellor of University of Ghana on the left

I was particularly excited by the news of the search for Malaria vaccine. I later asked Prof Aryeetey for details and was told it involved the collaboration of 5 research institutes on the continent. He was optimistic enough to expect it to be found in as early as 5 years’ time, but he was realistic enough to talk about the financial burden that comes with it.  He added that it was a problem for the continent and needed a concerted effort among the research institutes on the continent.
Craig’s main message was on the need to diversify and not to do what everyone else is doing. He gave the LSE story as a classical example of differentiation in action. It has worked for them so far, producing exceptional rewards worldwide since its beginning in 1895. By doing something different, he was alluding to the need for education institutions in Africa to partner with them when it comes to research and producing leaders. He kept going back to the role LSE played in producing pan-Africanists who then came back to get independence for their countries. It wasn’t just the Ghana story. He added the African appeal with Kenyatta from Kenya, also an LSE alumnus.

Craig Calhoun, Director of London School of Economics sitting in between Esther Armah and Seidu Sakara Foster

As he empathised with challenges faced by Prof Aryeetey, he recounted his own experiences of interference and disruption from carrying out his job when politics and the lack of coordination got in the way. He said the staff in the universities were so used to working in silos that there were many incidences of him having to introduce faculty members to each other.

Non academics perspective on the theme
Fortunately the conversation didn’t stay among Academics. We got the chance to hear from Nigerian lawyer who also lectures once every month in a Nigerian university. He shared his grievance of students going through university but the university failing to go through them. He spoke of how the concentration of African universities on world rankings were not ideal for this moment. He thought the focus should be what Africa’s needs are, including the equipment of its students to come up with sustainable solutions to Africa’s problems. He wants to see African companies that could have a legacy of 50 years or 100years. He thought maybe in 20 years, we could be in the position to compete in the league tables.
When the Ghanaian LSE alumni lawyers came in fashionably late, they were put on the spot to comment so one appealed to the LSE team to replicate the work done by institutions like Yale among alumni across the world. According to her, Yale had a stronger network across more corners of the world and she wanted to see this become the story of her alma mater.
The journalist and teacher Esther Armah came in with her appeal for the African institutions to call on Ghanaians in the Diaspora who were ever ready and willing to help. She gave us an example of what Star100 was doing and what their recent meet-up in New York had brought up. This resource of professionals should be tapped into and used to build on the older model to have something that serves the local market, was her message. Problems are global but solutions local!
The issue of the gap between industry and educational institutions was further thrashed out when a fellow Queen Mary alumnus working for Guinness pointed out the slowness of the Public universities to engage with the industry. She expects the kind of proactivity that comes from the private universities. She said industry was busy focusing on what it does best, which is making money so it was up to the universities to make known their needs, and look for partners in producing graduates who could fit into industry. This called for funding and recommendations from the industry as to what kind of graduates with which skill set should be produced, those who will be relevant in the industry. According to her, universities like Ashesi who are so in tune with the industry send their students to companies like theirs for internships. The buck got passed around to the industry when the Nigerian lawyer came in to defend the universities by asking the industry to rather approach the universities and find out how they can support them and then offer it.
We had a more constructive response from Prof Aryeetey who acknowledged the importance of marketing and branding to the university and though it had a long way to go, it was putting things in place to correct these wrongs. The long and short of THE report that had surprisingly landed on the desk of Preba Greenstreet, the lady from Guinness was a step in the right direction. He assured her of the second which was to follow in their attempt to reach out to the industry. The media was then suggested as the means to fill this gap and that was where Esther Armah’s point on good journalism was crucial.

Sakina and I. Dont we look alike?

From me, the non-LSE alumni’s point of view, it is still unclear as to why LSE wants to partner with Africa. I get it that the presence of students from 156 countries in LSE meant the learning experience was more enriched for their students with different questions being asked. But there is still an unanswered question as to why the LSE was investing so much into creating an innovative Africa sustained by the education and research, only to get in return an enriched experience. But having one foot in another camp is always good, so when Africa rises, a strategist wouldn’t want to miss out. That is my interpretation of the evening and the aim of the LSE.

Joy blogs at joseanella.wordpress.com 

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