In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, the acting president of the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Prof. Peter Onwualu, highlights the need to bridge the gap between theory and actual skills for national development and the need for Nigeria to produce young Africans who are industry-ready for the next century.
Our condolences on the death of the former president of the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Prof. Charles Chidume and congratulations on your appointment as the acting president. What does this mean for you, in the light of the objectives, goals and future of the university?
As you may be aware, this university has been raised to very high standards by its late president, Prof. Charles Chidume and all other administrations before his. Currently, the institution is a centre of excellence for high-level manpower training in science and technology, with students and faculty from all over Africa. Of course, the world has gone through some perturbations occasioned by COVID-19 and that has affected operations of the university but we continue to do all we can.
While we mourn our late president, life must go on. He believed in very high standards and quality assurance and this resulted in the production of graduates sought out all over the world.
For me, the legacy he left behind is where I will begin. Even though we have created a centre of excellence, my assessment is that we have few programmes. Our graduates are from 19 African nations. The dream of the founding fathers of this university is for every country in Africa to have, at least, one student on this campus, so that it can truly be Pan-African.
Currently, we have approximately 200 students in the masters’ and post-graduate levels. My dream is that this number will be ramped up to, at least, 2000 within the next year. We have about 10 African countries represented among the student population. The desire is to ramp it up to, at least, 50 per cent of countries in Africa will have students on the campus in the next year. As we progress, we can make that all African countries.
Another thing I want to do is, seeing as the university is designed from the background of harnessing the skills and brains of Africans in the Diaspora, we want to continue to have professors of African origin who are in global universities across the world and turn the brain-drain to a gain. Beyond that, there are two sets of African lecturers in the Diaspora; those who have become professors and are in their 70s and want to come home because they are retired. We need to harness the knowledge these people have by getting them to mentor another generation. The second group is made up of young scientists and engineers from Africa who are established in these countries and, although they are not ready to come back, want to give back in every way. I will reach out to these groups so that they can collaborate with the university. If we do this, African students in Nigeria will be getting the same knowledge they would have got in Germany, the United States or anywhere.
Another thing we have got in our sights is getting these students to spend some time here, say six months and, with the collaboration of the Africans in the Diaspora, go and spend a year or so in their laboratories over there. This way, we will be churning out high-level doctorate and masters’ graduates. They have been trained in Africa and the chances of losing them to the world will be very slim. They will always want to come back to work in Africa and use whatever they have learnt to develop the continent. Of course, some of them will go back to these countries.
When I say this [university] is a centre of excellence in materials, oil and gas, computing, mathematical sciences etc., it is not just in words alone. No. The Pan-African Materials’ Institute is Africa’s centre of excellence in materials under the World Bank Programme coordinated by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC). It is also one of the three centres of excellence for Partnership for Skills in Applied Science, Engineering & Technology (PASET), a World Bank programme designed to train 10,000 doctorate students in Africa in the next 10 years – the other two universities are the Bayero University Kano (BUK) and the University of Port Harcourt. As part of this programme, annually, they send scholars to us and we keep training them for doctorates.
Another big project which we have here, funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB) helps us to bring in Africans from the Diaspora. We pay for their flight fares so they can come down here and teach in person or online. I hope to leverage on this to get more resources to enable Africans in the Diaspora engage with us and teach alongside their colleagues in Nigeria.
This university seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in Nigeria, especially Abuja. A lot of people are unaware of what it has to offer. What does the AUST represent?
The original thinking is that Africa is known for the wrong reasons all over the world. Some people say it is a ‘dark’ continent, where disease and poverty thrive, where infrastructure do not work, etc. Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is popular for the wrong reasons. Our colleagues in North African seem to be somewhat better off.
A group of Africans in the diaspora went to Nelson Mandela during one of his birthday celebrations and asked what they can do for him. He requested that they establish three world-class universities in three African countries, for the education and training of high-level manpower. The founding fathers got to work and established what is called the Nelson Mandela Institute, which birthed the African University of Science and Technology.
The first one took off in Nigeria, the second is the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), Arusha, Tanzania and the third is the International Institute of Water and Environment (2iE), Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. These [three] institutions run at different levels of advancement.
One of the things we want to do is to get the general public to know of our existence, then get their children in here (for those who think the Nigerian education system has collapsed) and, then, create a multi-cultural environment for students and lecturers/professors from different African countries to interact.
What programmes do you offer?
Currently, we have over 13 programmes in the sciences – mathematics, physics, space physics, computing (computer science and management of information technology), engineering (systems engineering, aerospace engineering, petroleum engineering, material science and engineering), geo-informatics and geographic information systems (GIS). We have just started management sciences to support the science and engineering programmes. These management courses include economics, public policy, public administration and accounting.
We had just the post-graduate programmes but have started a process for undergraduate programmes and, by next session, when the accreditation process is completed with the National Universities Commission (NUC), we will add more undergraduate programmes like civil engineering, mechanical, chemical engineering, cyber security, data sciences, industrial chemistry etc.
Talking about ‘opening up’ the undergraduate studies…when will this come into effect?
As early as January 2022, subject to final approval by the NUC. The process is almost concluded.
You have emphasized that Africa needs skilled manpower in the science and technology space. Why is this?
Africa has an infrastructure deficit. More critical, though, is the issue of a lack of requisite manpower. The government is doing a good job reviving our rail system but where are the scientists and engineers designing our rail system? They are all expatriates. It is the same for all the sectors; electricity, oil and gas, building/road construction etc,. This is a major challenge. We lack the manpower to maintain complex systems. We are producing engineers and scientists but they are paper engineers. We are turning out many but they are not employable/skilled. They are not industry-ready.
Secondly, the world is changing. Technology is taking over, the world is science-driven. Globalization is here with us and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is here. But the content from Africa is almost zero. Africa is missing in the technology space. We need to produce young Africans for the next century, Africans who are industry-ready and can combine the theoretical knowledge they get with practical skills. How do you train these young Africans? You need doctorates and masters graduates who know what they are doing, so that when you train them, they come out ready for the industry.
Over here, in AUST, our curriculum is based on the problem-solving technique. We adopt the outcome-based learning approach. So, if you want to teach refrigeration and air conditioning, you don’t start from those mathematical things we normally teach in the classical approach; you start by asking students about the problem of controlling the environment to make it cool. You pose the problem. That is the problem-solving approach. If students begin to think about it, they look for how to find the solution. You need to bring them around to the science behind it. By the time you are done teaching them, they know how to design and maintain an air-conditioner.
One of the critical problems we have in Africa is existing in silos without partnership. Do you have partnerships with the government, industry and other academic institutions?
Remember, I said the university’s curriculum is designed with an approach to solve problems. For you to implement this, you must have partners. Partners are critical and they are selected using the triple helix concept and they are the government, industry (private sector) and academia.
On the government’s side, we have a lot of partners. If you go to the laboratory, you will see one built by the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) and we use that facility jointly. The Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF) has been here and we have been working with them on projects in the oil and gas sector. We have various forms of partnerships with the National Building and Road Research Institute (NBRRI), the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) etc,. There are a number of industries we are collaborating with; Total, Shell etc,. For the academia, considering that it is a high-level technology training centre, we have over 20 foreign universities – including the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of Arizona, University of São Paulo, University of Ghana, University of Nairobi etc,.
Some of the donor agencies we partner with include PASET, International Development Research Institute (IDRC), European Union (EU) etc,. We are trying to do more because it will be easy to support students with the kind of support we get from these partners.
What would be your call to the government as regards tapping into the potentials available in science and technology to develop Nigeria?
Science and technology is evolving all the time, things are changing and we need to spend on research and development. I know they are doing a lot already – some regional laboratories are being repaired – but, in a situation where you want to use highly specialized equipment and, maybe there are only five in Nigeria and just two of the five are functional, it means a researcher has to move his sample from where he is to that point [where the functional equipment is] to do the investigation he wants to do. Laboratories are key and government has to spend a lot of money to ensure we have a lot of working laboratories. Of course, these sensitive equipment require daily power supply, which we cannot boast of here. We need to build infrastructure and an environment that encourages research for researchers to do what they need to. Only when we do that will we use research to drive innovation and, eventually drive development.