Tuesday 13 April 2021
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The Role of Higher Education in Sustainable Development of the Developing World

We are living in the 21st century. The world that is hugely dominated by information technology and by extension education. Many people consider education as a key pillar for any individual, whereas others think that it is a mere role for every society. On numerous occasions, I have been accentuating and still strongly emphasizing that education is unquestionably critical for economic development, education is a pathway for a high productivity workforce in any country including Namibia. Education is the ticket to individual job security and higher income for individuals, exclusively in an age of knowledge at the centre of so many parts of the economy. I would like to shed more light on higher education even beyond individual human capital, issues and reflect on the importance of higher education. For overall economic development through other pathways as well and not only the training of individuals, but also the problem solving of society.
I have a high regard for universities for what they can do and should do for society. And I would like to reflect a little bit on how important higher education is. Not only in preparing graduates for a job in the labour market. But to empower them to participate more broadly as citizens and particularly to participate in each generation’s challenge of problem solving. What we know about higher education is that, not only does it boost the human capital of the individual, but it goes right to the fundamental that many people been emphasizing of the key to long-term economic development of technology and of know-how. Higher education has shown itself repeatedly to be crucial for the two kinds of growth that we observed across the globe. One is the endogenous innovation based growth, where new science and new technology are developed, giving birth to new industries. And this is exactly what we have witnessed in Asia, particularly in countries like Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, among others. Universities and higher education have been absolutely central, because technology and scientific advance has been central. The second kind of growth that developing countries like my beloved Namibia should adopt is the adaptation of technologies from abroad. It is true that not every technology requires a high skilled user to use it. How many of us really understand the quantum physics of how our mobile phones work, because quantum physics is crucial for understanding solid state electronics which is at the core of the integrated motherboard, which makes it possible for the digital revolution to work. Well, not too many of us could narrate all of the details of the digital age, but we can still use the phones.
Some technology are just marvellously packaged, so that it can be used essentially by anybody and this is a wondrous thing when the breakthroughs of science are in a pill that can be taken to save a life, no matter what the education level of the pill taker. When the brilliant rapid diagnostic test that we have mentioned enable a village health worker to save a child from malaria. That is a kind of technology that is packaged in such a way that it is very, very broadly accessible. But a lot of catching up growth, which depends on bringing technologies from abroad and using them effectively, depends on skilled workers. Not necessarily the same kinds of scientists that invented the technology in the first place, but scientists and especially engineers who can adapt those technologies to local conditions. Seeds that are taken from one place very often have to be adapted to local growing conditions, or certainly to local farm systems. And this is exactly why Namibia, and Africa in general, is supposed to exploit that China-Africa relationship.  History has it on good record that, even though Norman Borlaug’s seeds from Sonora, Mexico worked in India, thank goodness for India’s green revolution, how to plant them in the Punjab of India depended on skilled agronomists being able to make that translation of the technology from one place to the next. So, technology transfer is essential. Highly skilled workers are vital for that, universities of course are vital for providing that knowledge.
Universities are vital for providing the research and development that our, at the core of science based innovation. Universities are vital, of course, for providing not only a highly skilled, highly trained labour force, but for training the trainers. Especially the teachers, who are going to be working throughout society. Helping to prepare youngsters at pre-school all the way through primary and secondary education, so that they are developing their human capital to full capacity. And universities are critical for one more major activity that I want to underscore.
And that is problem-solving, policies and strategies to make the differential diagnosis that we have been speaking of, identifying the specific challenges that countries face, whether in public health, or in transport and infrastructure systems, or in facing the problems of climate or environmental change, or in adapting cities to be more resilient to natural hazards. There is a tremendous amount of innovation that will be required of new systems thinking, new ways to govern, new principles for our behaviour and our organisation of our social lives and our political systems, and universities are needed to play a key role in that kind of problem solving. Now this, of course, poses a major challenge. We have already observed the huge difference of enrolment rates in higher education in different parts of the world. Not surprisingly, we know that countries like the United States, the Scandinavian countries, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, are countries with a very high rate of university going, though, probably not high enough given the, information age that we are in right now.  But as compared to poor countries, throughout Asia, and especially throughout Africa, the Caribbean’s, South Americans, we would see that the reach of universities in many of today’s poor countries are not adequate to the needs for these societies to be able to generate the technology transfer and the home-grown innovation that is so essential for their development, and to have the highly skilled well-educated leadership, crucial for the national problem solving.  If you look at the above-mentioned countries with a very high rate of university enrolments, they also have a very excellent share of national income devoted to research and development, it looks a lot like, the tertiary education enrolment rates. Research and Development is heavily concentrated in the high income world.
This has been true, essentially for two centuries now, since the start of the Industrial Revolution. A tremendously high share of the new innovations has come from a small subset of countries, that is, the United States, Western Europe, Japan, now Korea, Singapore, Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and, of course, China. Just a few countries in the world account for the lion’s share of the scientific breakthroughs and the patented intellectual property that underpins a lot of the technology advances. And to a very important extent that technology, even when it is being developed by businesses, depends on the university sector. Indeed, it is itself a fascinating and complicated and complex challenge to understand how a society becomes an innovative society. As usual for the kinds of problems that we are looking at there is no simple linear path, nor a single answer. You might say well a high-income country has businesses that do R and D and it is from that research and development that new innovation emerges. But inevitably, those companies first need highly skilled scientists and engineers to be doing that kind of research. But even more important than that, the research that is the basis for new technologies, is often not being done in the companies at all. It is being done in national laboratories, or research centres, or to a very significant extent, in the universities themselves. It is thus my sincere hope that Namibia will start establishing national laboratories or fully furnished research centres, across the country.
There is a very complex and delicate network that links businesses universities, and national laboratories or research centres. And other cutting edge knowledge institutions together in a flow of information sometimes commercial, sometimes open scientific research or open source knowledge. There is alongside that flow of information and research findings, more pathways of money flowing. Maybe the universities are supported by business to do some targeted research.  Maybe it is the government that’s funding the universities doing research that then gets incorporated into new start-up companies. So, we say that this is a national innovation system that integrated mix of public and private, and benevolent foundations of universities, of businesses, of government national laboratories, of financial flows, and, all directions that are putting together a very rich flow of innovation and ability to make cutting-edge steps forward in science and technology. It is part of the challenge of every country’s development to create a national innovation system, consistent with its capacities, with its needs, and with its opportunities. And within that, higher education plays an enormous role.
The fourth aspect of universities that I very much admire and believe needs an even larger place in our societies, as we struggle with the challenges of sustainable development, that is, universities as major engines of problem-solving, considering the complex problems that we are convoluted with sustainable development – how to move to a new energy system and how to have sustainable agriculture. How our cities or towns can be re-engineered, re-purposed, redesigned for healthier more resilient settings with high economic productivity and less impact on the physical environment. And what has been known now for centuries, but really, demonstrated time and again, during the period of modern economic growth, is the role that institutions of higher learning can play and helping societies to grapple with their very complicated problems.
Now, I am very much fascinated by one of America’s great breakthroughs in this regard, called the moral act. A piece of legislation passed in the US Congress in 1862 and signed by none other than President Abraham Lincoln. The moral act created what are called Land Grant Universities in the United States. They are Land Grant because the Federal Government granted land to the states, to establish new centres of higher education. And there is one for every state in the United States, in this system of land grant universities.
But what makes the moral act and this initiative so novel and so important for America’s history is that these institutions were set up not only to train, but [also] to help the local communities and the states in which they are located to solve problems, to develop skills, techniques, and knowledge base to solve problems, especially from 1862. For a long time, to solve agricultural problems through agricultural field stations and outreach of university-based scientists into the community to help farmers grapple with problems of pests and productivity and soil nutrients and climate and the other variables and inputs into high productivity agriculture. The University of Namibia (UNAM) is tremendously doing well in this area and it is my hope that Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) will follow the UNAM’s footsteps soon than later.
Other countries, of course, in similar ways have championed their institutions of higher education to play this kind of role. But, many, many countries have so far not really taken up this idea. This is because sometimes governments of developing countries view universities mainly as places to teach, and perhaps as hotbeds of political controversy. But not as partners in development. And I always try to explain that government should view universities as engines of problem solving and of national development, and not only, though it is part of their role as places of education, and certainly not as hostile territory, where governments are worried about the political implications. Thinking, yes, can lead to new innovation, new approaches, new calls for new kinds of governance, and it should. But universities must be seen by governments in this complicated age of sustainable development.
In conclusion, governments of developing countries, including the Namibian government and industries, must join hands together with universities or institutions of higher learning to exchange knowledge, ideas, to debate and discuss alternative technological approaches, for example, the clean energy to help keep universities at the very cutting edge of sustainable development, thinking, ideas and technological know-how. Also, so that students can be trained to be at the cutting edge. On the complex challenges of sustainable development, I believe that by forming this kind of network, by energising the extent and intensity of problem-solving – and I’m counting on all of you to be part of that as well – we can indeed succeed in this great challenge of achieving the multiple objectives of economic development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and good governance that all of our societies need and yearn for.

*Kassian T.T. AMESHO is a PhD student at the Institute of Environmental Engineering, National Sun Yat-sen University. He holds MSc. Degree in Environmental Science [from North-Eastern Hill University, INDIA], MBA Degree [majoring in Business Ethics and Corporate Governance, RBS South Africa], B.Sc: Environmental Health Sciences, National Diploma in Natural Resources Management [NUST, formerly known as Polytechnic of Namibia]. His has a strong research interest in the following research areas: Environment and Sustainable Development, Resources Utilization and Circular Economy, Ecosystem Sustainability, Green Energy, Energy-saving Technologies, Pollutants Reduction, Air Toxicology, Environmental Exposure, Genomes and Health.
Email: [email protected]

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