Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Carnegie Mellon University, First US Research Institution to Open a Campus In Africa

As Information and Communication Technology (ICT) become increasingly available in Africa (see my paper in Next Billion), the region will see the emergence of a new ICT industry. Many conditions are required for this to happen: a stable ICT infrastructure, a mature business environment attracting investments, good public governance, etc. More and more countries in Africa are moving in that direction (see this paper), but a major remaining challenge for Africa is good quality higher education to provide access to an ICT skilled workforce.

When looking at the worldwide university rankings, we see that 75% of the top 1000 universities are located in the Western world (North America and Europe). Emerging markets are lagging behind and Africa in particular represents less than 1 percent.

To try to close the gap, many emerging countries have invited Western universities to create branch campuses. Most of them have been created in the Middle-East region funded by rich petroleum exporter countries and in Asia.

American universities have 78 campuses overseas, British universities have set up 13 international campuses, Australian universities have a strong presence abroad, too, with campuses in Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, France has a couple of campuses in the Middle East. (see this article in The Economist)

But so far no Western university has open a campus in Africa where the problem of the quality of higher education is much more acute than in other developing regions.
A simple analysis can help understand the status of higher education in Africa. If we divide the number of inhabitants in each continent by the number of universities we can get an idea of the ease of access to higher education. The number of inhabitants per university in North America is 108K, in Europe it is 167K, in Latin America 156K, in Asia 643K. For Africa it is one university per 1.6 million people!

As we can see Africa's number is one order of magnitude less favorable than in other continents. As a consequence, classes are overcrowded, and it is not uncommon to have several hundreds students in the same classroom leaving no chances for most of them to interact with the course teacher. In addition, many times teachers are under qualified, having only master degrees, no Ph.D. Many universities are self funded, pushing them to prioritize quantity and revenue over quality. This is reflected in the low ranking of African universities.

If we look for the first university appearing in those rankings for each continent, we will usually find a US university in first position, the first university from Europe usually appears around the 5 to 20th position depending on the rankings. For Asia the first university is ranked around the 20th to 50th position, but those are usually universities from Japan, Hong-Kong or Australia. If we are looking for the first ranked university from China or India they appear in the 200th-400th position.

For Africa the highest ranking is for a university of South Africa in the 300th position. Sub-Saharan universities appear much lower in the rankings requiring to look at larger rankings. One such ranking is the Ranking Web which is published twice a year (January and July), covering more than 20,000 Higher Education Institutions worldwide. This ranking is based on several "webometrics" indicators: size, visibility, popularity and number of electronic publications.

In that ranking the first university from sub-Saharan Africa is ranked 1402th indicating a significant gap in quality of higher education in that region.

The combination of difficult access and low quality of higher education has been a major disadvantage for the development of Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has 83 scientists and engineers per million people compared to about 1,000 in the developed world.

This is why the announcement by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that its Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT) is opening a graduate school in Rwanda can be considered as a major event. It is the first time that such a highly ranked research institution is opening a campus in Africa, offering graduate degrees with an in-country presence.

CIT is consistently ranked in the top 10 engineering graduate schools in the world. In addition CIT will be able to leverage its Information Networking Institute, the Carnegie CyLab and the Institute for Complex Engineering Systems, and resources from other schools like the School of Computer Science ( ranked #1 in the last 2010 ranking from US News), and many multidisciplinary research centers at CMU.

In the past years CMU has opened campuses in California, Greece, Portugal, India, Australia and Qatar and this project is yet another example of CMU strategy to be present in emerging markets where new global powers will be, and expand the opportunity to impact the globe by being uniquely positioned.

The government of Rwanda has strategically targeted CMU, a world leader in higher education to contribute to its regional ICT Center of Excellence (COE) and to focus on new models of education, research and development, and the commercialization of information, communication and other advanced technologies. The education model will be build upon CMU's experience in creating ICT programs that integrate technology, policy, and business issues. It will be based upon a foundation of problem solving based learning and interdisciplinary education, adapted appropriately, of course, to fit the regional culture and needs and addressing regional problems.

Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda (CMU-R) will support the institutional and program content design, together with provision of high level teaching staff. This support will be in line with the African Development Bank’s strategy to promote skills development in science and technology in support of socio-economic development in Africa.

CMU-R will adhere to the same quality standards used for education at CMU’S Main Campus in the US and that have made the reputation of CMU as a global thought leader with excellence in education and research.  Course credits earned at CMU-R will be fully transferable to CMU’s Main Campus and vice-versa. 

At the heart of CMU-R will be two professional graduate degree programs: a Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) with tracks in Mobility, Information Security, and Software Management and a Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering (MSECE). The project expects to have 15 academics on board in the next five years and deliver 150 master degrees per year.

CMU-R is only one component of Rwanda's ICT COE and will be complemented by four key components:

1) An Innovation Incubator to nurture the ingenuity of future entrepreneursgraduating from the school;

2) An Executive Education program focused on cultivating senior leadership in industry;

3) An Advanced Practical Training Program that serves as a hub for skills-training services in basic Information & Communication Technology (ICT) production activities and professional certifications;

4) A Mobility Research Center that collaborates with industry to develop mobile technologies that will make an impact on society and contribute to economic development.

The choice of Rwanda is an interesting choice as there are many other countries in the region who have declared their intention to start an ICT industry, but too often the execution is not following the nice political rhetoric. In Rwanda the government is aggressively executing the carefully planned ICT vision defined in their Vision 2020 strategy which aims to bringing Rwanda to the level of a middle income, service and knowledge based economy by the year 2020, so that Rwanda can "leapfrog" into the digital-era global economy; a smart way for a landlocked country to integrate itself in the global economy.

After enabling the environment, defining policies, and developing the ICT infrastructure, CMU-R is part of the third phase of the Vision 2020 plan: the development of ICT skills to facilitate the creation of a highly competitive ICT based services sector, fueling economic growth. This in turn will promote social and cultural interaction and integration in the society through the use of ICT. As President Kagame said: "ICT is no longer a privilege but a right for Rwandan citizens".

Therefore the impact of the CMU-R goes beyond the delivery of a Master degree program. The expectation of the Government of Rwanda is that the integration of CMU-R with the local Private Sector will generate the development of a vibrant ICT industry with the partnership of major IT vendors and position Rwanda as the regional ICT Hub.

While one Center of Excellence is not enough to serve the entire continent, it can serve as model for others just like in the US other ICT hubs inspired by the Silicon Valley success appeared later.

This is the most exciting education project I have seen in Africa in a long time not only because of the quality of CMU but also because of Rwanda's government commitment to move to a knowledge based economy and its business environment offering the required conditions for success. That is why as a CMU alumnus I decided to join this project as Associate Director and Professor, leaving IBM after 25 years. If you are interested in supporting this project, feel free to contact me or apply here.

See you later alligator...


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