Race for research glory begins…….

…………..Hope rises as 10 Nigeria-based African Centres of Excellence
receive their first tranches to actualise their dreams

By Mary Ogar 

With the recent disbursement of N1.471 billion to 10 Nigerian universities hosting the African Centres of Excellence (ACEs), the stage is now set for the self-assured eggheads whose proposals led to the selection of the respective centres to commence work.

Announcing the good news on August 3 at the post-effectiveness workshop organised for the beneficiaries in Abuja, the National Universities Commission’s (NUC’s) Executive Secretary, Prof Julius Okojie said the money, representing the first tranche, was shared equally among the 10 centres (each got N147,172,326.35), to avoid any delay in the implementation of their respective mandates.
Okojie was, however, quick to add that each centre would only be eligible for further disbursements, provided it fulfilled its own side of the bargain.

The expected results, according to the NUC scribe, include but not limited to the number of: national and regional students enrolled in new specialised short term, Master’s and Doctorate programmes in terms of strengthened capacities; national and regional students enrolled in new specialised short –term, Master’s and PhD programmes (regional aspects) and internationally accredited education programmes (training quality).

The number of students and faculty, with at least one month internship in companies or institutions relevant to their fields (training quality and addressing challenges); and the amount of externally generated revenue by the centres (training and research quality) were also listed.

The 10 centres were among the competitively selected 19 University-based African Centres of Excellence (ACEs) instituted in 2013 as a regional project, by the governments of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and the Republic of Benin.      Backed by the World Bank, the centres have the mandate to promote specialisation, address particular common challenges and strengthen the capacities of the participating institutions within the West African region, to carry out applied research and deliver high quality training.     The bank would provide $150 million to finance the 19 ACEs for advanced specialized studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and also in agriculture and health. Nigeria is entitled to $70 million out of the total.

Consisting of two parts, the first component of the project will, according to the World Bank, strengthen the 19 ACEs in selected higher education institutions, to produce highly skilled graduates and facilitate applied research to help address specific regional development challenges.
The second component, intended to enhance regional capacity, evaluation, and collaboration, also has three sub-components: enhancing regional capacity and evaluation, which will be financed through a regional International Development Association (IDA) grant to the Association of African Universities (AAU); the project facilitation in Nigeria, which will finance project implementation support and facilitation for the National Universities Commission (NUC); while the enhancing demand-driven regional education services in the Gambia will finance the provision of higher education services to Gambia’s students, faculty, and civil servants.

World Bank Education Specialist, Dr. Tunde Adekola implored the centres to consider more relevant research that would address not only Nigeria’s challenges but also the entire continent’s. Since the centres would be evaluated every six months, he told them to strive to achieve the project’s set goals as soon as possible.  He also enjoined the university authorities not to view the project as just a World Bank project, “but to own it as the university’s and give it the desired attention.”
Back in April, nine of the 10 designated Nigerian universities (see Table) had, in Abuja, signed performance contracts with the federal government and the World Bank, which paved the way for them to access a maximum of $8million each to execute the ACE project.

Each university was represented by its Vice Chancellor and Centre Leader. To former Education Minister, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, who presided over the signing ceremony, the ACE project is “a call to action” to tackle regional and national challenges. He said the centres were now entrusted with the responsibility of providing the expertise needed to develop Nigeria and the West African sub-region and deliver sound training and applied research.

But the former Minister warned the management of the host universities against undue interference in the centres’ activities or substitution of the team members. Any changes to be made on the membership of any team, he asserted, must be cleared with the NUC.
Besides, he said that the federal government would not hesitate to reallocate funds from any non-performing centre, if there was sufficient proof that the stated objectives were not being met.
He said: “It is therefore your (university management’s) responsibility to work in harmony with your team, to ensure that they perform optimally.”  He also implored the centres to justify the huge amount of resources the government had committed to the project.

An obviously elated Prof Okojie, had, on that occasion, described the event as “a great one” for the country’s university system. Speaking against the backdrop of relentless criticisms by stakeholders against the country’s standard of education, Prof. Okojie said the fact that universities in Nigeria won 10 out of the 19 ACEs, especially when the process was strictly merit-based, despite the huge setback the system had suffered in the past when it lost a significant number of faculty to the diaspora, was an evidence that the system was still doing well.

World Bank Education Specialist, Himdat Bayusuf had also on that occasion, said the NUC would coordinate the disbursement of funds to the centres. But after the first tranche, according to her, funds would be released to only those that show evidence that the previously released funds had been judiciously used. She said that non-performing centres would lose their grants to other active centres because the World Bank intends to adopt the you snooze, you lose model.

AUST joins the race
The African University of Science and Technology (AUST), which could not join the nine ACEs in April to sign performance contract due to minor challenges, eventually showed up in July, declaring its readiness.
Prof Okojie, at a briefing on July 6, said the declaration confirmed that the university had fulfilled all outstanding requirements, including signing of the performance contract, partnership agreements, project accounts in line with the requirements and proper composition of the Project Implementation Team.

The AUST team had to be recomposed following the exit of its former team leader Professor Soboyejo who relocated to Princeton University in the United States.The Executive Secretary said AUST’s appearance had put to rest the danger of  Nigeria losing the $8 million meant for one of its 10 selected ACEs, “at a time the country was in dire need of development.” He expressed satisfaction that not only did Nigeria retain its 10 Centres, but also the specific programme, Pan African Material Institute (PAMI) that won the ACE in AUST.

The AUST programme entails the use of a system-based interdisciplinary approach to undertake training and research activities in respect of materials for solar energy, health, water purification and affordable housing/infrastructure. It is also intended to support the training of PhD graduates and professionals from the industry, government, business and development partners, that could contribute effectively to the development of West and Central Africa.

The institution’s Vice-President (Academics), Professor Charles Chidume, told the audience that the AUST, which offers purely postgraduate programmes, was the first of three World Bank sponsored Nelson Mandela Institutions, and was established to source and train talented young Africans, particularly from the sub-Saharan Africa.

The AUST, he further explained, offers intensive and rigorous Master and PhD programmes, which required students to publish a minimum of two papers in high-level international journals before they could be awarded PhD degrees.  He stated that the institution, which had so far graduated more than 300 Masters of Science students from over 19 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, had also graduated five PhD students, while another six were expected to graduate by July, this year.

The Centre’s leader, Dr Akin Ojo, noted that PAMI’s goal was to develop materials for Africa’s advancement and train students who would make Nigeria a knowledge-based economy. The project’s three focal areas, according to him, include Education, Research and Outreach.
The Education component, he stated, has a target to enrol about 50 PhD, 400 MSc students and host about 40 publications, within the project period of three years. The expectation, he said, was that in 10 years, the Centre would have achieved its aim of developing a critical mass of persons to drive a knowledge-based economy.

For the Research component, the Centre’s focus is on Energy, especially using nanotechnology to develop thin film solar cells, as an alternative for silicon solar cells, which is considered a more expensive option. It was also focussing on bio-synthesis of materials as well as multifunctional materials, for building and water purification.

Co-Centre Leader, Dr. Sola Odusanya observed that within the first half of 2015, the Centre had published 15 papers in high-impact journals. He disclosed that under the health sector, PAMI was focussing on cancer and cardiovascular diseases, with special emphasis on early detection, using nanotechnology. To achieve its aim, the Centre has established direct linkages with health and research institutes and the private sector.

Vice Chancellors upbeat
The Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, who spoke on behalf of the participating federal universities at the signing ceremony in April, pledged that the centres would respect the terms of the signed contracts. The obviously delighted Rasheed also said it was the first time that such a quantum of funds was being injected into the university system, specifically for research.  The Vice Chancellor of Benue State University, Prof. Charity Angya, who spoke for the participating state universities, said she hopes the project would encourage more research efforts in the various universities across the country. She also said her institution was excited to be part of the project.

Vice Chancellor of Redeemer’s University, Prof Debo Adeyewa, commended Okojie for providing a level playing field for all universities to compete. He revealed that the institution’s Centre for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, where the Ebola virus that was imported into the country by a Liberian, Mr. Patrick Sawyer, was isolated and identified, has published its research findings in reputable international journals.
Leader of the University of Benin’s ACE in Reproductive Health and Innovation, Prof. Friday Okonofua, thanked the NUC, AAU and the World Bank for giving fair competition a chance. Okonofua, who is also the Ondo State University of Medical Sciences’ Vice Chancellor designate, said the centre leaders had worked very hard for 15 months prior to the event, and had learnt many lessons.

In justifying its support for the ACEs, the World Bank had argued: “the (African) continent faces a serious shortage of skilled workers in fast-growing sectors such as extractive industries, energy, water, and infrastructure, as well as in the fields of health and telecommunications. The result of having too few skilled workers in Africa’s extractive industries is that oil and minerals are extracted in Africa but processed elsewhere in the world, to the detriment of African industries and jobs. Africa also suffers from a shortage of trained health workers who can provide high quality maternal health services. This may partially explain why Africa’s maternal mortality rate has remained so tragically high at 500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

“Further, Africa needs its own research and innovative solutions to tackle its development challenges including climate change, which calls for urgent measures to increase yields in agriculture; and infectious diseases, which continue to exact a heavy toll on families and economies.

“However, the researcher-to-population ratio is very low in African countries. Burkina Faso, for example, has 45 research and development (R&D) specialists per million people, and Nigeria has 38, in comparison to an average of 481 in Latin America and 1,714 in East Asia.”

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