The University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) is receiving much attention on social media thanks to an electric vehicle the University designed. The product was showcased at the UDSM Research and innovation week, setting forth many unpleasant comments from netizens.
But that is not the only reason that put The Hill, as the University is fondly known, in the spotlight. For example, there is this government negotiation team on extractive industry contracts led by former UDSM lecturers, something that did not sit well with critics who were shocked that the team did not have even a single person from the industry itself.
At the outset, I’d like to salute Aston Nyenyembe, the engineer who designed the electric vehicle. We need to celebrate people like him for their attempts, as Nyenyembe put it himself, “to move from papers to actual implementation.” But UDSM needs to hear me out.
As the first University in Tanzania, UDSM played a crucial role in shaping the country in its early stages of formation. It was where issues were discussed no matter how hard they seemed, be it the case of stringent laws that allow the detention of people indefinitely or a shift from socialism to a market economy or criticism to one-party rule.
Difficult questions about our country were asked, and solutions were developed there. Critical thinking was the currency of the day, ingrained among university students. The debates on social emancipation, development and pan-Africanism attracted progressive scholars around the world.
With time, Tanzania changed, and so are its needs. Now issues that need a closer look are no longer those involved with leadership only; you have a growing population that needs jobs, an economy that is deeply integrated with the global economy where technology development is everything and the digital environment continues to change our lives at a pace that we can hardly comprehend.
While the position of UDSM was apparent in the past, it is now stuck between its past glory and its inability to grow and adapt positively. Its deficit of solutions and absence in critical moments of our nation question its current relevancy.
Of course, the government is clinging to the old notion that UDSM is still a think tank of the nation, except that it is not, evidenced by its dons who fumbled on the job after receiving presidential appointments. Many of them failed to connect theories with the practicality of the world.
The number of research projects and journals published has also declined, and the frequency of appearance in internationally recognised journals is also stint.
Take, for example, the report from the University of Dar es Salaam annual report, which shows that for five years – 2012 to 2017 – there were only 615 research projects and a consistent decline of peer-reviewed journal articles from more than 600 to less than 300.
I won’t elaborate here on how the University is also known as a notorious burial ground for many students’ projects.
The University of Dar es Salaam must interrogate its culture as an institution. In time, it has evolved into an institution that discourages thinking and imagination.
It is significantly limiting when your main product is knowledge. Yet, somehow, in the quest to seek knowledge, you must say, question, and publish only issues pleasant to the government of the day, thinking ‘patriotically.’
And the obsession with academic titles without any backing merit is just astonishing. Doctors and professors, without any meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge and society. This may be a phenomenon in our community, but UDSM has significantly contributed to elevating this.
It would be unfair to say the University lacks talent, but I imagine that the politics of that institution has crowded talent completely.
Talking to some personnel there, you can sense fear of doing or thinking something that will put them at loggerheads with the administration. But, on the other hand, some who are bold enough would do most of what they believe is right outside the university space.
Consider this: Tanzania and many other countries have passed through a phase of turbulence due to COVID-19 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. It is not a secret that ideas are needed to get the nation out of this crisis. But, unfortunately, there are no of those ideas as I write this, not from UDSM!
Strangely, experts from the University would also hardly respond to a journalist’s question regarding a story on critical national issues. When they accept the interview, most answer journalists’ questions as if they were in an interview for a government appointment!
As a UDSM alumnus, it still bothers me that many of us spent a lot of time pondering and learning about, say, the economy of Texas in 1960 and other countries. Still, we did so little to consider the real-life scenario we were living in.
How do we contribute to the body of knowledge if we always have to wait for somebody from the West or East to come up with new knowledge and then run with it to become experts about new knowledge, idea, or form of doing things?
The confidence of our academicians is also very shaky; you can sense it when they debate issues, especially before peers from other countries. Most have been exposed to mediocrity for so long that they have forgotten when they had the passion for seeking and finding knowledge.
As the University of Dar es Salaam invests in modern buildings and facilities, the same investment should be made in revamping its passion for knowledge.
The University should allow its talent to thrive, promote talented people, encourage and invest in research, promote the culture of dialogue, and be able to tolerate dissent.
And most of all, it should return to promoting excellence and discard mediocrity.
Opportunities and resources are already available in projects like Higher Education for Economic Transformation Project (HEET), availed through a World Bank loan. But the question is, will the money go to revamping the University, or will all of it be spent on one seminar after the next, per diem and allowances?
There should be a realisation that the brand that the University of Dar es Salaam is living on, the respect and admiration, is something of the 1980s. There is even great potential for building a much greater brand by returning to its purpose of establishment.
The government should allow the University to thrive unless the goal is to make it something for the museums. Also, it should help it by diversifying where it sources its talent.
Continuing to import most talent from the University leaves the institution helpless and in need of human resources. But, more importantly, it’s not the best way of attaining progress in the government, as it’s the same people from the same culture pool and attitude.
Tony Alfred K is a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @tonyalfredk. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.