Why transforming universities is central to resilient food systems

Anthony Egeru at RUFORUM speaks with me about transformation and leadership in higher education. I met him on campus at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Michael: There is hardly any fancier term than transformation. We are transforming everything – agriculture, countries, and university curricula. What do you make out of this conversation about transformation in higher education?

Anthony: Yes, everybody talks about transformation. And for higher education, this is critical. It is critical because most of our higher education institutions were created to train clerks to serve colonial interests. So, now the conversation we need to begin is about more significant national and regional issues. We no longer shape individuals to memorise and follow orders without independent thinking.

Michael: So, universities and colleges have trained for compliance almost by design?

Anthony: Yes, compliance. But we need a new cadre of young people. And we need transformation at the institutional level, which is fundamentally beginning to ask what the role of universities is in all that. Universities must serve countries’ interests, facilitate development, and shape and check how investments contribute to national development. So, the conversation we must have is about how to best transform higher education to become helpful to national processes.

We must start looking at community transformation — more from the broader architecture rather than just farm communities. We need all actors at the national and regional levels at the table. And universities must see themselves as drivers of that transformation. Then there is the transformation at an ecosystem level, looking at bringing all the different actors and issues together into a common strategy to influence how systems work. So, these are real issues that we need to deal with. We need to deal with systems and processes, visioning and thought leadership is at the centre. That we need to develop.

Michael: We are 60 years after the decolonization. What has hindered universities to reform so far?

Anthony: The continent tried to build itself for the first 20 years after independence. In the next phase, coups dominated, which was part of the cold war politics. So, we retracted back into that and allowed the universities, for example, to begin to think in that direction which had started. But we went on, continuing to do things as normal. But the realities have now changed.

Michael: So, what stands in the way of the transformation, and how to design higher education differently?

Anthony: To me, what stands in the way of that transformation, is leadership. But until we do not develop thought leadership towards change, all the other important things cannot be fixed. It’s like trying to get to a destination, but you have a reckless driver. Until we resolve the driver’s behaviour, we can keep changing the tires and painting the vehicles, but the cars will continue getting accidents.

Michael: This puts a lot of pressure on universities when you have an educational system underpinning it that does not support it.

Anthony: Yes, it does. It places a lot on universities, but universities fundamentally have a role in influencing what happens in education. Hence, until universities also begin to see that they have that role, the system will continue to recycle itself. Universities have to appreciate their role in influencing what happens in the education of our children. We have role models out there. We can see the transformation happening. There are some models, Ashesi University in Ghana and Egerton University in Kenya. Now a bit of buy-in is beginning from different governments, such as Mozambique and Malawi. The Government of Uganda is beginning to make those investments, and we’re continuing with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Michael: What does it mean for a university to go through that transformation? If you look at the change management.

Anthony: It involves means that the university leadership must be committed. Second, we need good pilots so that the others begin to say “wait a moment, these guys are different. Why are they dancing to different music? The governments can begin to resource the change.

Michael: Do you see the current crises in Europe and the war of Russia in Ukraine affecting the transformation of universities?

Anthony: It may affect donor-funded projects, but it will probably push the universities to begin to be responsive, to provide solutions for import substitution and begin to look for solutions. And universities have been putting some of these products out there, and people will have not been bothered about them, but now I think they’re beginning to say, I think we can buy local products. This a good opportunity for universities.

Michael: How would the transformation of higher education look like that also contributes to peace and security?

Anthony: Universities and higher education have a fundamental role in shaping the conversation around development programs, including peace and security. So, if the university continues to do its part, peace and security can be enhanced at various levels.

Michael: Thank you

Dr Anthony Egeru is the training and community development manager at the RUFORUM (Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture) Secretariat. He is also an associate professor at Makerere University Kampala.