HERANA: Contributions to regional development by University of Buea

To continue our special week, we are now featuring a post from  one of the students who was linked to the HERANA project. Samuel N. Fongwa recently completed a Masters degree in Higher education studies linked to the  the NOMA programme at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His masters’ dissertation (for which he earned a distinction) focused on the contribution of universities to regional socio-economic development in African context and his study was an in-depth case study of University of Buea. He is currently enrolled for a PhD in Regional Development at the University of the Free State, South Africa. His research interest is on the actual and potential contribution of universities and higher education institutions to national, regional and local socio-economic development – with specific interest in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. In this post, he will share some of the insights from his master thesis.

The last couple of decades have witnessed significant transformation in the nature, culture, structure and functions of universities. This has been characterised by the emergence of new and more socio-economically relevant universities on the one hand, and an increasing shift of older universities as they become more entrepreneurial, utilitarian and actively engaged in the growth of their local communities, regions and nations. This shift in scholarship has been significantly influenced by a rethink of academic ideologies, management systems, funding structures and most importantly in the type of knowledge needed in the knowledge economy. Case studies from Western Europe, North America including Canada, and increasingly in developing economies reveal that economic growth in success regions is characterised by a conscious policy structure at national, regional and institutional levels aimed at steering universities to engage more actively with their regions (Forrant, 2006; OECD, 2007).

Most African universities in general and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular have not been quite successful as agents in regional and national development. Many historical and contemporary reasons could be put forward to account for this. A key argument is the socio-political ideologies upon which these universities were established; most often as symbols of national culture and identity and also more recently to ensure political legitimacy and acceptance by the region in which the university is being established (Oladele, 2001).

The University of Buea (UB) in Cameroon is not very different from the typical African university. Created in 1993 in a rural and agricultural dependent economy, the university according to its decree of creation was established with three key missions:

  • To contribute to national development and promote social and cultural values”.
  • To establish co-operation links with other national and international institutions of a similar nature.
  • To undertake any other activities appropriate for a university of the highest standard

The UB was conceived with a national and international oriented institution with little or no regional expectations being placed on the university. At the institutional level as well, the UB has most often perceived itself as a national university with national and international aspirations while the need to consciously contribute to the region’s socio-economic welfare has remained an elusive notion to most academics. For the few academics who embraced the idea of regionally relevant research and engagement, most have been deterred by lack of funding and adequate institutional incentives for regional engagements and problem-solving scholarship.

A review of the institutional mission indicates that “the University is dedicated to the continuous quest for excellence, the promotion of moral and human values and service to the community….” (UB Strategic Plan, 1998-2003). However, interviews conducted with academic staff reveal a major disjoint and lack of common understanding of what ‘service to the community’ actually entails. The apparent lack of coordination as opposed to most success stories in the West, is compounded by an absent of an office dedicated to community relevant research, aimed at providing a platform for cooperation and engagement between the university and local development stakeholders (Siegel & Phan, 2004).

However, primary and secondary data collected from key stakeholders who have lived and operated in the region for at least 15 to 20 years provide arguments that the University of Buea has been a major contributor to the rapid development and transformation of the region. Data was collected and analysed using the counterfactual method (Siegfried et al. 2007), involving three neighbouring townships. Analysis reveals that albeit unintended, there is a strong positive correlation between the creation of the UB and the rapid transformation of the Molyko area where the University is located when compared to the other two townships (Muea and Bomaka). Using data on entrepreneurial growth, job creation, infrastructural development and the skill levels in the three regions, the Molyko region showed significant high levels doubling that of the other two locations put together.

This observation has to a great extend followed Perroux’s notion of the growth pole concept (Higgins, 1998) where regional development was initiated by the establishment of a major industry in a peripheral region and whose presence attracts development which then spreads to the other peripheral regions. The contribution of the UB was also significantly evident as an exporter of higher education. Using the export and import substitution approach (Siegfried et al, 2007), data collected from students reveals that more than 90% of UB students come from outside the Buea Municipality and only 9% hailing from Buea. This attracts huge capital through student and visitor expenses in the region; resulting in a rapidly growing informal economy in the Molyko area.

Interviews with university administrators and researchers as well as with local government officials and major development organisations in the region reveal a lack of cooperation between the major development stakeholders – government, academia and business. According to some academics and municipal officials, this lack of cooperation has greatly hampered regional development projects which lacked better planning and implementation. Amid this apparent lack of institutionalised cooperation, some academics and academic departments have succeeded in engaging beneficially with regional stakeholders in projects such as the geo-hazard monitoring programme, the ‘bayangi bitter leaf’ seed development programme as well as a waste management partnership between the Environmental Science program and a local NGO.

In closing, the lack of an institutionalised regional research ethos leaves these initiatives in the balance and wary of the sustainability of their impact and their potential in strengthening the academic core (Cloete et al, 2011).  As further suggested by Scholfield et al. (2005), the emphasis on successful engagement between universities and regions lies on the quality and content of their relationships; highlighting issues of trust, mutual respect and flexibility. African universities have a major opportunity to significantly influence the development pathway of their regions, states and continent at large. However for this to be achieved development national development policy will need to integrate academic scholarship; thus breaking the ‘ivory tower’ still hovering over many African universities; making the university increasingly relevant to its immediate society in its teaching, research and active engagement and aligning national development with university policy.