Role of universities in knowledge production


DURING the first University of Zambia (UNZA) alumni relations and advancement dinner held at Mulungushi International Conference Centre on Saturday December 2, 2017 in Lusaka, President Edgar Lungu observed that “today’s world is a knowledge-based one and, therefore, the success of our country will depend on the extent to which we expand access to knowledge to as many people as possible”.

President Lungu noted that UNZA must be a place where thinking is a shared process. He further added that the university should be a known place “for discovery of knowledge through research and dissemination of knowledge and prototyping innovative ideas for the benefit of the nation at large”.
It is thus evident from the President’s observation that the essential contribution of knowledge to economic and social development is now beginning to be recognised. Such recognition has increased the attention to the role universities play in the production and dissemination of knowledge to society.
For a developing country like Zambia, discussions on the role of universities in the production and dissemination of knowledge are important and must be sustained because knowledge is a crucial tool for overcoming underdevelopment. In a knowledge-based economy, economic production depends on well-equipped and skilled human capital as the major source of new and innovative ideas, which are also enabled by advancements in information and communications technologies (ICTs). Thus, a knowledge-based economy is an open source of ideas intended to invent a future state for a better society and, ultimately, a more sustainable world than the present state (OECD, 1996). It further entails that economic development is dependent on investments in education, learning and training, among others.
Thus, many countries are today becoming aware of the essential role that universities play in the construction of knowledge-based economies. Universities as centres of learning are becoming more important than ever, as they allow people, organisations, and countries not only to generate rapid changes in knowledge, but also how they use that knowledge to solve problems and to cope with the different social, economic, political and technological changes taking place in society today.
However, in discussing the role of universities in the production of knowledge, it should be noted that universities are not isolated institutions, but they are embedded in the larger societal context in which they exist. This is why in the knowledge economy/society, universities have gained political and economic importance as institutions that produce and transfer knowledge. While it is certainly so that many other institutions form an important part of any national innovation landscape, universities are the only specialised institutions whose core business is the production, reproduction and dissemination of knowledge, including the education of a skilled and knowledgeable human capital needed to drive development.
In Zambia, UNZA has since its inception in 1966 been the largest public university. However, in 2013 Government repealed and replaced the University Act of 1999 with the Higher Education Act of 2013. The Act was established to provide effective quality assurance in service delivery by higher education institutions as well as open up space for private higher education providers. As a result, there are currently seven public universities and about 70 private universities in Zambia. However, quality in training remains poor in most of these universities as evidenced by the quality of graduates.
There is little or no research and generation of knew knowledge in form of publications and other forms of innovation taking place as evidenced by the poor ranking of both private and public universities in the recent past. It is therefore important to note that the rankings of both these public and private universities on the global, regional and national scale have an effect on the credibility of graduates, research, knowledge and other products that are churned out from these universities. The poor management and accountability also remains a challenge in some of the public universities as evidenced by the sporadic labour and students’ unrests seen at these institutions.
Further, during the launch of the Seventh National Development Plan (SNDP) 2017 -2021 on June 21, 2017 at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre, President Lungu stated that “we want an economy where value-addition and knowledge-based activities are deeply entrenched in line with the principles of a smart Zambia.” He further stated that the SNDP is an important milestone towards the attainment of the Vision 2030, whose major thrust is for Zambia “to become a prosperous middle-income nation by 2030”. But, for this goal to become a reality, it will require substantial investments in human capital and knowledge as key to attaining these set objectives for our country, particularly through innovation in research and technology which are the cornerstone of a knowledge-based economy.
Therefore, for UNZA as a pioneer of university education in Zambia to fully maximise its contribution to the production of knowledge for development in our country, the institution should begin to reposition itself as a centre for the discovery and production of knowledge and innovative ideas in order to transform our country for the better. Higher institutions of learning like UNZA should further diversify their income sources by engaging in other innovative ventures such as private-public partnerships (PPP) to strengthen high-level research and innovation, expand infrastructure and promote industry-based teaching activities for learners.
The author is a social commentator and blogger.

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