Haile Debas (UCSF): Rebuilding African Universities

Uploaded by ibiomagazine on 08.01.2011

I am Haile Debas and I am the executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences
and former Chancellor and Dean of the Medical School at UCSF.
I'm originally from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa, that was once part of Ethiopia.
As such, you might say, I'm living proof of the brain drain from Africa.
I know the basic science community has a strong interest in global health.
The passion of our graduate student and post-doctoral fellows for global health is unprecedented.
Over the past seven years I have been particularly inspired by UCSF students and post-docs
to focus on the deteriorating higher education in Africa. This is what I want to talk to you about.
It is a shame to see the once great African universities in such a state of disrepair.
I would like to enlarge on this problem and lay a challenge at your feet.
Our students get it, the basic science community gets it,
and the American Society for Cell Biology not only gets it, but is trying to do something about it.
What is needed, is a collective effort on a grand scale.
I am convinced that collectively, the basic science community in the United States has the potential to
revitalize African universities and revolutionize sciecne education and research in sub-Saharan Africa.
So, how bad is the problem?
The picture behind me depicts it simply and powerfully.
It is from a 2007 front page article from the New York Times
entitled, Africa's Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling.
A chemistry student in Dakar, Senegal is tring to measure liquids with a broken graduated cylinder.
The broken measuring cylinder is emblematic of the decrepitude of African universities.
The New York Times stated it well, and I quote
Africa's best universities, the grand institutions that educated revolutionary,
a revolutionary generation of nation builders and statesmen,
doctors and engineers, writers and intellectuals, are collapsing.
Yes, into the 1960s, Africa did have great universities.
The University of Ibadam in Nigeria, the intellectual home of Nobel Prize winning writer Wallace Soyinka,
was considered one of the best in the British Commonwealth.
Makerere University in Uganda, was then the Harvard of Africa
and trained a whole generation of post-colonial leaders, including the great Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.
Other New York Times attested the University of Dakar in Senegal produced
doctors, engineers and lawyers with credentials that were considered equal to their French counterparts.
How then, did this collapse of African universities come about?
There are two chief reasons. First, when the idealistic, post-colonial African leaders
were replaced by authoritarian and corrupt governments, universities,
the craddle of revolutionary thinking, were the first to suffer.
To these corrupt leaders, investment in weapons of war was far more important
than investment in institutions of higher education.
The second reason, was the inadvertant damage done by the economic reforms
imposed on African countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the 1980s.
The so called structural adjustment programs channeled funding to primary and secondary education
at the expense of higher education.
For over twenty years, little investment was made in either the infrastructure or the faculty of universities.
In fact, faculty hiring was frozen for ten full years.
And this reality combined with massive and accelerating brain drain
depleted universities of their teachers.
But the IMF and World Bank policies of the 1980s also put up a time bomb.
The population of students finishing high school grew four-fold.
In the last few years, many African governments have forced the universities and
medical schools to double or quadruple thier student intake without making
commensurate increase in the univserity budget.
The predictable result was witnessed first-hand by our post-doctoral fellows
who had been going to Tanzania since 2006 to teach biochemistry at Muhimbili Univeristy of Health and Allied Sciences.
Their contribution has been significant and forms proof of principle
for the proposal I'm about to make.
So what did our post-doctoral fellows find?
First, the teacher-student ratio was abysmal.
The University had only one professor of biochemistry to teach a class of 300 pre-clinical students.
Instructional technology was absent or at best minimal.
Classes consisted of the teacher giving a one-hour, one-way lecture.
The concept of small, interactive, group discussion was unimaginable.
The suggestion by our post-doctoral fellows that graduate students might be recruited
to teach was regarded are heretical.
Lecture halls and laboratries were old and poorly equipped.
And the list goes on and on. So, here is the challenge I put to you:
Let us develop a basic science global health alliance or something equivalent,
lead by US basic science faculty and post-doctoral fellows
perhaps under the auspices of such organizations as the American Society for Cell Biology or
the Consortium of Universal Global Health.
The focus would be to develop long term strategic alliances with African universities to accomplish two goals.
First, improve science teaching and help develop research capacity.
The power that would propel such program is the energy and the enthusiasm of post-doctoral fellows.
Faculty supervision and mentorship will of course be critical.
It is my belief that to achieve these goals, science and research is best taught in situ in the developing countries themselves.
This the only way we can be sure to build local capacity in science.
Given the enormous commitment that exists in US univeristies, three additional ingredients
are essential to begin to execute this inititive.
First, popularize the idea through utternaces of science thought leaders
through op-ed pieces in Science magazine and other journals as well as by
communication of scientific organizations to their memberships.
Second, form a US basic science global health alliance that will enter
into long term partnership with African universities
so that together, they can plan how to execute this strategy.
And third, secure finding. If a serious concerted national effort can be mounted
by US basic science department and by US scientific associations, it is likely that
both private and public support can be found to do this.
So, if you see the virtue of my proposal, please contact me with any ideas you might have.
My e-mail address is on the screen. Thank you.