The Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE), coordinated by the Association of African Universities (AAU) and the Inter-University Council of East Africa, have graduated a total of 8,100 students made up of 1,600 PhD students and 6,500 masters students since the initiative’s inception in 2014, the AAU has told University World News.
Of the graduates, 25% are women and 25% are regional students who came from institutions outside the countries where the centres are based.
In addition,16,000 students benefited from short courses offered by the centres and they entered into 87 partnerships with other institutions and industries.
Dr Joshua Atah, the director of ICT projects of the Nigerian National Universities Commission, said the project has contributed to the undertaking of world-class research by the centres involved through, among others, the provisioning of funding for procuring state-of-the-art equipment needed for laboratories and creating conducive working environments for researchers in modern building.
In addition to this, the researchers and students are being trained to increase the pool of Africa’s base of researchers.
The significant investment that is being made into Africa’s research and higher education, in general, has also provided opportunities in joint resource mobilisation, teaching and learning and also the sharing of infrastructure and other resources.
Atah said that, by design, each centre is responding to development challenges in specific thematic areas.
“In the area of health, for instance, we have seen the health centres of excellence, such as the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious and Non-Communicable Diseases, Ghana, and the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, Nigeria, at the forefront of the COVID-19 research,” he said.
“There are agriculture-focused centres which are addressing post-harvest losses, and centres in Benin which are addressing water and sanitation issues,” he added.
The centres have also been able to generate US$38,437 million from some of their internal activities such as competitive grants that were awarded from other development partners, governments, tuition fees, joint research and research consultancies. They have also been able to raise funds through activities like the selling of produce and technologies.
The faculty members attached to the centres have also been credited with 1,005 research publications.
In addition, 1,820 faculty members and students benefited from graduate internship programmes, which are different from the main graduate programme.
The internship programme is part of the training programme in which the students are given an opportunity for placements at a relevant industry for a period of not less than a month.
“For this project, we have encouraged the students to be placed at private companies, ministries and public utilities. The idea is to create an opportunity for hands-on practice as the students are finalising their degree training,” said Atah.
Funded by the World Bank and the Agence Française de Développement (the French Development Agency), with a budget of U$350 million over five years, the project began in 2014.
Phase one, ACE I, comprised 22 centres hosted by countries in West Africa. ACE II comprised 24 Centres of Excellence in East and Southern Africa.
The West Africa and Central Africa centres are based in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti and The Gambia. The rest are in Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
The third phase, ACE Impact, which also aims to improve the quality, quantity and development impact of postgraduate education in selected universities through regional specialisation and collaboration, is ongoing.
It focuses on West Africa and Djibouti and includes 53 centres in total: 17 in Nigeria, nine in Ghana, one in Gambia, two in Guinea, five in Burkina Faso, four in Côte d’Ivoire, three in Benin, three in Togo, three in Niger, four in Senegal and two in Djibouti.
ACE I has ended already, but ACE II and ACE Impact projects are ongoing. The AAU oversees ACE Impact, while the Inter-University Council of East Africa is overseeing ACE II.
Although COVID-19 disrupted educational activities and slowed down the activities of the centres, as many universities which host the centres were closed, they developed innovative ways to continue their work.
The Africa Centre of Excellence in Genomics of Infectious Diseases hosted by the Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, was the first institution in Africa to successfully sequence genomes of SARS-CoV-2.
The Nigerian centre also developed a COVID-19 screening tool to measure individual risk level, collaborating with the Africa Centres for Disease Control to sequence all the COVID-19 virus variants in Africa.
The West Africa Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana is also contributing to managing the virus through the sequencing of genomes to strengthen surveillance for tracking mutations of the virus.
Other centres have also made contributions through the production of personal protective equipment such as face shields and ventilators, among others.
Under the ACE Impact, project funding has also provided the institution-wide strengthening of programmes within engineering schools or colleges at selected institutions (COEngg).
The CoEngg or merging centres are expected to scale-up enrolment of undergraduates (including enrolment of females); achieve international quality standards; introduce new academic programmes; promote project-based learning and innovative pedagogy; establish new laboratories; and enable technology transfer and business and entrepreneurship.
It is also meant to build linkages to business programmes; and enhance teaching and research capacity as well as promote institutional transformation in terms of policies and operations.
The AAU said sustainability beyond the World Bank funding has been a factor to be used to determine the future success of the project. Consequently, a key indicator in accessing funds is the generation of external resources by centres.
“As a result-oriented project, an acute monitoring and evaluation mechanism is being implemented to ensure that the impact made by the centres is sustained,” the AAU said in response to questions by University World News.
Some centres have also created an endowment fund to provide long-term stability, fiscal responsibility, and financial viability.
In addition, networks (in health, digital education and development, water, mining, urban planning and transportation and environment) within the various thematic areas have been created to enhance inter-ACE collaboration for continuous and sustained impact.
Centre of Coastal Management
The director of the Centre of Coastal Management of the University of Cape Coast, one of the centres in Ghana, Professor Denis W Aheto, told University World News that the centre aims at achieving excellence in postgraduate training of young African professionals in key areas of coastal management to address the deteriorating coastal and marine environments (ecosystems and biodiversity) and, thereby, enhance coastal resilience and promote policies through various strategies.
Aheto said the centre contributed to helping its faculty members to publish 150 scientific articles in both international and local journals and communicate applied research at regional and international conferences and workshops during the project period.
He said that, since becoming part of the ACE, 88 students have enrolled in various academic programmes and 30 PhD and 58 masters students have graduated. The centre has also had 110 professionals who participated in short courses.
As with other higher institutions, Aheto said, one major area affected by COVID-19 was the reluctance of industries to take on students for internships.
“Thus, students could not embark on internship trips as originally planned. Also, the pace of research among staff and students generally slowed down. Lockdowns and COVID-19 protocols created some apathy among research respondents and user communities,” he added.
In addition, the university implemented a shift system that limited the number of staff and faculty allowed in their offices at any given time.
This greatly reduced the efficiency of key offices within the university and, therefore, general productivity. The rapid transition to online teaching and learning, internet data needs and (uncertain) reliability of internet services were additional constraints.
Consequently, Aheto said, the centre is working on implementing a hybrid system of teaching and learning whereby both onsite and online platforms are explored to deliver academic programmes and research.
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