Senegal’s Virtual University, a Case Study on Transformative Innovation Policy

Thinking & Analysis

May 2019
Diallo, Jacob Dasylva, Fatou Cissé, Mamadou Sy, Marie Blanche Ting, Chux Daniels, Joseph Saturnin Diémé

Through a competitive selection process, Senegal has been chosen alongside Ghana and Kenya to participate in the pilot phase of the Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) Africa Hub. The TIP Africa Hub is part of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) which aims to better connect innovation to societal and environmental realities in order to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The TIP project therefore aims to foster transformative change in science, technology and innovation (STI) policy by placing societal and environmental challenges at its core; while also addressing economic and growth objectives.

The Senegalese team is comprised of Professor Mamadou Sy, coordinator of the project, lead researcher Dr Fatou Cissé, researchers Dr. Joseph Saturnin Diémé, Dr Assion Lawson Sipoaka and policymakers, Mamadou Diouldé Diallo and Jacob Dasylva. Some of the Senegalese team attended the Transnational Workshop held in South Africa on 4th and 5th February 2019, where the TIP elements of directionality, societal goals, system level impact, learning and reflexivity, conflict versus consensus, and inclusiveness were applied to select Senegal’s Virtual University as the case study. The choice of the Virtual University gave rise to a focus on the theme “Higher Education and ICT”.

The Virtual University of Senegal “Université Virtuelle du Sénégal (UVS)and its corresponding initiative, Open Digital Space “Espace Numérique Ouvert (ENO)” was chosen because of its transformative nature. UVS is a public digital university, which aims to provide Senegalese youth with equitable access to higher education. UVS takes into consideration the rapid trends in ICT, which will require new ways of equipping students in an era of a digital age. Learning at UVS combines traditional classroom teaching with online training. In this approach, the traditional classroom teaching component decreases as the students advance in their curriculum.

UVS was established in September 2013, by presidential decree. The university started with an initial student registration of around 2,050. By 2018, the number of students associated with UVS has grown to more than 28,000. The first cohort of students graduated in 2018.

The UVS slogan in Wolof, “foo nekk foffu la” means literally “where you are, is where it happens”. This is significant in that UVS aims to embed education within local communities, emphasizing that students are local agents for change within the societies where they live. UVS takes education to people where they live, making it possible for youth, women with young babies, and people with disabilities, to study at their choice of location and their preferred pace. The societal change has been huge, as demonstrated from the rise in the number of students. Currently, UVS is the second largest university in Senegal in terms of student size. As part of the Transformative Innovation Learning History (TILH) methodology, a reflective workshop took place from 29th – 30th April 2019 in Dakar. With support from two researchers from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex Dr Chux Daniels and Ms Blanche Ting; Senegal’s project team met the different actors involved in the creation and operation of UVS. The objective of the fieldwork was to improve understanding of the UVS case study and explore its transformative potential. The outcomes include the production of an actor-network map, the tracing of UVS’ evolution, and the development of a timeline of activities.

The first day was devoted to the onsite visits and focused group discussions with the key stakeholders in the design and implementation of the UVS project. These visits and discussions included the home of Professor Mary Teuw Niane, former Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation and creator of the UVS vision. After this, there was a group discussion with UVS staff, led by the UVS Coordinator, Professor Moussa Lo. Thereafter the research team held an in-depth discussion with student representatives to understand the beneficial impact of the projects but also the challenges and possible avenues for improvements.

There was also a visit to the implementing agent of the project, the State Computer Agency – Agence de l’Informatique de l’Etat (ADIE) to understand the efforts made to provide relevant infrastructure and backbone (i.e. ICT services) to support UVS operations. Through open exchanges, the various stakeholders were able to share their experience of UVS, their convictions on this innovative project that has become a reality, and some of the challenges that this institution face. The AIDE team also shared their visions and perspectives on the future for UVS and Higher Education in Africa.

The second day was dedicated to a full-day workshop of exchange between the project team. In attendance were researchers and STI policymakers, UVS staff and students, the representative of the ADIE, the associations of parents of students, participants from the Ministry of Employment, and other actors. After an informative presentation on UVS, the role of ADIE, and the transformative innovation policy approach, workshop participants examined the key stages of the evolution of the UVS project to better understand the innovative dimension of the project. In addition, participants discussed the importance of engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and the need for involvement of many actors.  Participants also discussed the status of implementation of UVS, its socio-economic and environmental impacts, and the quality of the services offered. The discussions were guided by the transformative change framework and TIP criteria/elements outlined above.

The activities in this second phase of the TIP pilot project, highlights the need to base innovation on social needs, and to formulate public policies in the innovation sector based on reliable data. The expectation of a transformative innovation approach is that the socioeconomic and environmental dimensions are adequately addressed, alongside the economic objectives. These in turn enables the achievement of national development objectives and the SDGs.

The UVS example has inspired other countries, including Burkina Faso and Cote d’ Ivoire, signifying the important contribution of UVS to the broader African higher education ecosystem. With these first instructive steps in the appropriation of the TIP approach, the project team is actively preparing the research report on the case study, which will be presented at the next transnational workshop that will take place in mid-July 2019 in Senegal. The international workshop will bring together the member countries of the pilot phase of the TIP Africa Hub namely Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and some researchers from the Consortium to share insights from the other country’s case studies. The July transnational workshop will present opportunities for the four countries to strengthen their learning on TIP approach and improve their understanding of transformative change in the African context.