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Higher Education and Social Innovation Ecosystem in Ghana

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are widely regarded as agents of human transformation and social development, and as such, are expected to play active roles in the change process in society. This expectation is based on the premise that higher education institutions play a leading role in teaching, learning, research, and facilitating the innovation of process, policies, and human contributions. This policy brief looks at the contributions by higher education institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (moreso in Ghana) to social innovation and societal development. The literature points out the challenges, policies, and existing practices by the various institutions to alleviate these challenges.


Existing literature has shown that the expected impact from African higher educational system is continuously thwarted by challenges which include poor research ethos, inadequate resources, and brain drain. These result in little novelty, low-skilled labor force, and little contributions to innovation as a means for achieving social development.

Studies show that African higher education institutions (HEIs) are characterized by limited capabilities in applied research for local problem-solving, low-quality teaching and learning, and low adaptability of research outputs to societal challenges among others. [1] As a result, they rely on continuous public-private collaborative efforts, and funding from the government and local and foreign private institutions, in developing interventions that strengthen their capabilities, and translate into long-term innovative solutions to society’s developmental challenges.

Research is considered a critical means by which HEIs can contribute to long-term innovation. Although these institutions are supposed to undertake activities that include research and harness innovation, many of these institutions are often under-equipped, under-funded, and under-staffed to be able to adequately complement the national agenda.

Another problem is the mismatch between teaching programs and societal challenges. Most institutions are said to offer programs that fail to prepare students for the challenges faced in society. In many institutions, training programs particularly, are based on curriculum that are not always up-to-date.

While innovation is acknowledged as a tool for fighting social problems, it appears to be given little attention compared to technical innovation, and is ignored by most innovation literature, suggesting that current research in innovation focuses on technological innovation. This is reflected in the curriculum of higher educations, who mostly specialize in social literature courses, and related studies.

These observations are mirrored in Ghana, as there is low capacity, inadequate budget allocation for research, over-reliance on external support, and little emphasis placed on social innovation.

State of higher education in the Ghanaian context

In Ghana, there are currently 104 public and private university universities and colleges, 145 accredited vocational institutes, and many other affiliated colleges of training and education spread across the country. Only 15 of these are public universities, while the remaining are private universities and institutions affiliated with the traditional public universities or colleges. Research has shown that many of these institutions have been slow to adopt new models of operation, teaching, and learning, failing to offer modern relevant programs and infrastructures that contribute to social innovation, and ultimately address societal needs

Research points out some key challenges in the Ghanaian higher education sector, which include: [3] [4] [5]

  1. Low quality of teaching exacerbated by relatively poor teaching conditions, low tutor remunerations, inefficient delivery, and the fact that many university departments reportedly do not have more than two senior professors active at a time.
  2. Little research endeavors when compared to HEIs in developed regions. There is generally, a dire level of research opportunities, low outputs, and lack of data, primarily as a result of the low research funding. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the lowest research capacity and output in the world, contributing less than one percent to global research currently. In a 2013 survey, the three largest Ghanaian universities reportedly estimated between ten and twenty percent of their internal funding was committed to research.
  3. Little relevance of research to innovation, leading to low impact from research output to the socio-economic development of nations.
  4. Insufficient administrative leadership, infrastructures, and resources. The sector’s development has been stifled by outdated operating models, inadequate funding, weak governance and leadership structures, inadequate infrastructure, and low quality of academic programs.
  5. Brain drain, where individuals with varying degrees of talent migrateto other countries for higher education, and better research and employment opportunities that encourage them to remain in those countries. The direct impact of academic expertise that is lost through migration, imposes a huge constraint to the growth and development of local tertiary institutions.

Scope of research and social innovation for the development of higher education systems.

[12] Africa’s population will reach approximately 2.4 billion by 2050 – where more than 70 percent will be under the age of 30, and 60 percent in cities and towns – prompting calls for an increasing need for the emergence of more social innovators operating at scale. The Association of African Universities (AAU), in playing a catalytic role of revitalizing HEIs across the continent, designed a series of interventions and recommendations for adoption by HEIs in the region. These interventions have been in the key areas of: [13] [14]

  • Institutional leadership and management; which involves enhancing leadership management capacities in higher learning institutions through a series of training workshops on Leadership Development, Management Development, and University Advancement.
  • Academic mobility, including the African diaspora; this involves partnering with diaspora organizations to create a borderless database of diasporas and seniors in various disciplinary fields.
  • Development of ICT for teaching, learning, and research; this involves strengthening ICT capacity of HEIs and promoting interuniversity networking and collaboration through ICT networks and partnerships.
  • Making African scholarly works available to the wider audience in and outside Africa; this involves increasing the number of African higher education research and scholarly works that are accessible online.
  • Graduate fellowships and small grants for PhD support; by awarding scholarships and research grants.
  • Linking universities to the productive sectors of the economy, and supporting HEIs to assist their host countries achieve the sustainable development goals; this involves facilitating academic and industrial attachments and internships for university academics on technology uptake, promoting curriculums that equip students with entrepreneurial skills, and providing support for business start-ups from university research in collaboration with industry associations.

In recognizing the apparent gaps, the World Bank’s African Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) projects aim to build the capacity of Africa’s HEIs in areas that are important for improved learning, industry linkage, and economic growth. It specifically aims to tackle gaps in human capital and innovation in science and technology through research, and industry-relevant curriculum. Ghana is among the participating countries, and local HEIs are adopting programs from the ACE project.

To ensure the sustainability of their operations, some Ghanaian universities have also taken initiatives to encourage excellence in research, improve the capacities of students, and reduce social inequalities (social, gender, disability) among others. One such local institution is Ashesi University Foundation in Ghana which has integrated research, critical thinking, and real-world projects challenge into its curriculum to build students that contribute to development of innovative, practical solutions.

The University of Ghana also commits to adoption of ACE’s research and post-graduate expansion and skills development program through the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) programs. The university also introduced a new academic program in Innovation and Leadership to foster entrepreneurship and innovation among students, and to develop the knowledge and capabilities necessary to create solutions that add value to society.

An advantage of such initiatives is the creation of avenues to innovate in order to create practical solutions that address pressing societal challenges. For instance, University of Ghana is at the forefront of the team providing research support for vaccine development and genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2. [4]

Conclusion and Recommendations

Research is a fundamental mandate of tertiary institutions, and serves as a bedrock of innovation. Well defined research serves as a means to discovery and lasting problem solving, through adaptation of existing solutions and innovation. It is relevant that they promote initiatives that steer research towards the discovery and development of practical solutions to the challenges highlighted above. To achieve practical outcomes, these institutions should increase their research spending adapted to providing the requisite resources, infrastructure, and expertise which all align with the overall objective of systemic social innovation, and facilitating research alliances that expand that body of knowledge on social innovation.

Secondly, there is need for a systemic approach to conducting practical research, and developing a long-term progressive research policy that promotes research into science, technology, and social innovation.

Another recommendation is the need to ensure research in HEIs are realistic, practical, offer value for money, and align with the country’s socio-economic developmental needs. They need to develop robust curricula that encourage creative thinking to ensure that research projects, and the resulting findings can seamlessly be applied in realistic contexts.

This policy imperative around robust curriculum development further emphasizes the need for Government of Ghana to raise national R&D spending towards developing the skills sets, infrastructures, and training platform to ensure seamless dissemination of training programs that align with the socio-economic developmental needs of the nation(s).

Social innovation is undoubtedly a prerequisite for effectively resolving lingering and emerging societal issues. In recent times, HEIs have increasingly become prominent at taking initiatives that promote innovation, with the intention to create positive change. Most of these initiatives are however, constrained by limited resources and capabilities as mentioned earlier in this brief. To overcome these limitations, HEIs need to form alliances that leverage on their combined strengths and resources, to ultimately drive the social innovation change that is required for societal development.

On a final note, pertaining to the policy of funding support to higher education organizations, areas to be addressed include prioritization of internal budget to research and development, leveraging of funds from developmental institutions that support education, innovation and research, as well as from government budgets allocations.

In line with these recommendations, clear milestones should be established with full participation and collaboration of partners or member organizations, continuous monitoring and evaluation to ensure goals are achieved, and corrective measures undertaken in a timely manner.


[1]“Higher Education,” The World Bank, March 2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed July 2021].
[2]“The World Bank,” July 2021. [Online]. Available :
[3]J. C. Mba, “Challenges and prospects of Africa’s higher education,” GPE Transforming Education, 3 May 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed July 2021].
[4]“COVID19 Coronavirus Response. Sub-Saharan Africa: Tertiary Education,” The World Bank, 2020.
[5]J. Nyerere, O. Mfune, D. Fuh, N. Sulemana, E. Mutisya, G. Yiran, O. Fadairo, J. Ameyaw and A. Odingo, “The Role of Higher Education in Building a Sustainable African Society,” University of Ghana, Accra, 2016.
[6]N. Ng’ethe, A.-L. N’Dri, G. Subotzky and E. Sutherland–Addy, “Higher Education Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa: With Specific Reference to Universities,” Working Group on Higher Education, 2003.
[7]“African Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Initiative,” UNESCO, 2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed July 2021].
[8]E. Lamot and E. Duret, “Senegal: Leveraging National Systems to Transform the Education System,” GPE, 19 July 2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 July 2021].
[9]“Partnership for Higher Education in Africa,” Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2021. [Online]. Available:
[10]“Lessons from a Ten-Year Funder Collaborative: A Case Study of The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa,” Clear Thinking Communications, New York, 2010.
[11]N. Cloete and F. van Schalkwyk, “HERANA – 10 years of Growing Research Universities,” University World News, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed July 2021].
[12]N. O. Nwuneli, “Enhancing social innovation in Africa,” Business Graduate Association, [Online]. Available: [Accessed July 2021].
[13]“Challenges and Prospects of Africa’s higher education,” The Association for the Development of Education in Africa, 2021 May 2017. [Online]. Available:
[14]“AAU Strategic Plan,” Association of African Universities, 2016.