The 7th edition of the African Regional Conference of Vice Chancellors, Provosts and Deans of Science, Education, Engineering and Technology (COVIDSET) ran from 20th to 21st November 2019 at the Elephant Hills Hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It was a high powered function which was officiated by the Tanzanian Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Hon. Professor Joyce Ndalichako. She was represented by the Deputy Permanent Secretary in her ministry, Professor James Mdoe.
In her speech, Hon Professor Ndalichako focused on the role of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in the development of African economies. She underscored that modern economies were inseparable from technological innovations and industrialization. She added that on the other hand, technological innovations and industrialization are a result of quality STEM education.
“It is even harder to imagine how we have reached the present stage of development as African nations without STEM playing a leading role,” she probed. She explained that much of what people are enjoying today in their daily lives are a result of the application of STEM knowledge and skills.
She posed a very strong and touching question to the COVIDSET delegates on whether they were doing enough in educating the youths who were the architects of tomorrow’s technological inventions and innovations.
“If we invest enough in the youth population we have, this population will be one of the drivers for the future of the continent. But if we do not invest in the youth, they will be our greatest liability’.
Professor Ndalichako drew the delegates’ attention to the number of reasons why Africa was lagging behind in terms of STEM research and education. “It is true that many African countries are investing in STEM research and education, with the African Union encouraging its members to spend 1% of their GDP on STEM. Unfortunately this has not worked according to our expectations due to our economic constraints and other pressing priorities,” she said. She added that inadequate financial resources was the major challenge being faced in Africa as it limited higher learning institutions’ ability to set up and maintain well-equipped research and teaching infrastructure; limited offering good salaries to attract science lecturers and limited sponsoring of a greater number of low-income students interested in science and engineering subjects. She added that financial resources also led to poor quality assurance of study programmes and conduct, and the running of irrelevant or outdated programmes, among other challenges.
Professor Ndalichako touched on the challenges of low enrolments of students in STEM related programmes in African institutions. She said the enrolments were far behind global averages. She pointed with concern that engagement and participation of girls in STEM subjects was of particular concern and required strategic interventions to reverse the current trends.
“As leaders and stakeholders in STEM education, we have a moral obligation to ensure that all our young women and men are empowered with relevant skills to be able to participate to the fullest in the knowledge-based and digital economy,” she challenged the delegates.
The Guest of Honour took a swipe at research in Africa. She said many researchers were forced to collaborate more with researchers from the North rather than within the region, for known reasons. She hastened to say that this move has led to the African research agenda being driven by external interests thus lacking relevance in the local contexts.
She spoke of the fourth Industrial Revolution which is technological transformation. She emphasized that this was occurring at a faster speed than one would imagine and this speed was expected to increase over time. In view of this revolution, Professor Ndalichako said African businesses of the future would require people with quality and relevant STEM skills to cope with technological advances. She raised the following fundamental questions that were necessary for leaders, policy makers and stakeholders in Science, Technology and Engineering education to critically reflect on:
- to what extent do African STEM institutions prepare graduates with requisite skills to be able to take advantage of, and fully benefit from the ongoing technological transformation as result of the fourth industrial revolution?
- how will the technological transformations impact lives of our people in villages, towns and cities?
- Is the fourth Industrial revolution going to be a blessing or a curse to our people?
“It is my conviction that curricula for STEM related courses will definitely require updating to make them relevant and consistent with the fast-occurring technological transformations to unleash the creativity and innovation capacity in our youth.” she said.
She added that despite all recorded achievements in assimilating emerging technologies, overall Africa is still lagging far behind when compared with technologically advanced nations. “Certainly, bridging this gap will require consorted efforts to reform the Africa’s innovation ecosystem and STEM education by making it more entrepreneurial and market oriented.” In her concluding remarks, Professor Ndalichako bequeathed the delegates with a list of action points to consider during the course of their deliberations. The action points were designed to help Africa to fully benefit and cope with technological transformations.