Dr. D. K. Ezekoye, Professor of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin:
I have read this thread on "useless disciplines" and have been somewhat surprised by what I perceive to be a lack of balance in the discussion. I perceive that nobody has really supported the kernel of truth in President Obasanjo's statement (i.e., that developing nations should likely invest more in technology education than even in general education). I am not an economist, and thus, I have simply used my library's online journal selection to summarize what academic economists have written. Further, as a U.S. engineering educator, I am aware of similar statements by U.S. policy makers on the need for increased technical education here in the US to maintain economic growth.
Murphy et al. (1991) write that "Our evidence shows that countries with a higher proportion of engineering college majors [the economy] grows faster; whereas countries with a higher proportion of law concentrators [the economy] grows more slowly." (Murphy, Kevin M & Shleifer, Andrei & Vishny, Robert W, 1991."The Allocation of Talent: Implications for Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 106(2), pages 503-30.) Now, this does not mean that law is a useless discipline, but it does suggest that investment in engineering will likely add more to real growth than expenditures in law. We all recognize that expenditures in all education improves a country's economic growth, but it also appears that investment in technical education has a much greater impact on economic development. My undergraduate dean at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, Dean Joe Bordogna, writes now as a high level administrator from the U.S. National Science Foundation that "there is much evidence supporting the notion that technological innovation is central to wealth creation and economic growth. Many studies (National Science Board, 1996; Smith and Barfield, 1995; U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, 1995) indicate that, over the past 50 years, technological innovation has accounted for over one-third of U.S. economic growth ... The true strength of a nation resides in its human capital--especially its engineering workforce. Engineers will develop the new processes and products and will create and manage new systems for civil infrastructure, manufacturing, health care delivery, information management, computer communications, and so on. In general, they will put knowledge to work for society and facilitate the private sector's potential to create wealth and jobs."(Making Connections: The Role of Engineers and Engineering Education, Joseph Bordogna The Bridge, National Academy of Engineering, Volume 27, Number 1 - Spring 1997)
Such arguments are not unique to the U.S. Jones argues that ideas which are related to research expenditure fuel economic growth (Sources of U.S. Economic Growth in a World of Ideas By CHARLES I. JONES, http://www.econ.iastate.edu/classes/econ520/huffman/documents/SourcesofU.S.EconomicGrowthinaWorldofIdeas.pdf)
Other countries (e.g., Poland) have considered and implemented policy initiatives toward technical education as a means to stimulate economic development. Morawski et al. (1998) write that "Poland has invested in business, management, and technology education in an effort to develop its economy." (ENGINEERING EDUCATION IN POLAND by Roman Morawski, Brian Manhir, and Janusz Starzyk, Warsaw University of Technology /Ohio University http://www.ent.ohiou.edu/~starzyk/network/Research/Papers/Recent%20conferences/Engineering_Education_Poland_ASEE1998.pdf)
While many know of the Chinese and Indian tech miracles, such "miracles" have taken place in many parts of the world. A common component has been the development of local industry by expatriates who return home to develop homegrown industry. A Taiwanese example is discussed (http://siepr.stanford.edu/Papers/pdf/99-10.pdf). In recent years I have seen increasing numbers of Sub Saharan Africans (primarily Nigerians) entering the graduate school at the University of Texas. I suspect that some of these people will someday be in a position to positively affect Nigeria's economic development.
Standard points on the development of the four Asian Tigers are highlighted in an article by Morris. Morris notes that South Korea's GDP in 1960 was approximately the same as Sudan's. He discusses the rate of growth of these economies. Morris implies that the efficiency associated with investment in different types of schooling may have affected their development. An interesting point made was that early development required simply easily trainable and literate employees while later and more capital intensive product development required a more technically trained population. South Korea and Taiwan showed strategic and long term planning in the development of technical education while in Hong Kong and Singapore such training has often been done by companies. Common features have been to provide strong literacy and numeracy training while also providing a strong sense of social cohesion and national identity during early industrialization.
(Asia's Four Little Tigers: A Comparison of the Role of Education in Their Development Paul Morris, Comparative Education, Vol. 32, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 95-109.)
I also learned that in the late 1950's and early 1960's the Japanese government made a concerted effort to increase the number of technical graduates. The ability for our own African governments to do similar efforts would not, in my opinion, be short sighted.
The larger issue of the development of human capital given limited resources is at issue. While it is relatively clear that expenditure in research and development (R&D) fuels economic growth, the link between investment in education and development in R&D is only now being investigated for all countries. Temple states that students are not taught liberal arts education to increase labor productivity, but instead to improve their lives as citizens and suggests that education in technical arts is more pragmatic. The author even questions the need for spending at the highest levels in engineering and science if the returns are not realized.(GROWTH EFFECTS OF EDUCATION AND SOCIAL CAPITAL IN THE OECD COUNTRIES, Jonathan Temple OECD Economic Studies No. 33, 2001/II http://www.ecn.bris.ac.uk/www/ecjrwt/abstracts/Article2ES33.pdf)
The development and commercialization of technology is clearly important in the development of economies. Why do some countries do better at this than others? This article suggests that it may have to do with expenditures in R&D and the size of the R&D labor pool. This labor pool can be locally developed, and public policy is an important step in increasing this pool. Perhaps President Obansanjo was beginning to articulate a public policy initiative in his widely ridiculed statement.
(The Determinants of National Innovative Capacity Jeffrey L. Furman, Boston University, Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School, and Scott Stern, Northwestern University & NBER. September 26, 2001
Given the laundry list of references above that indicate that expenditure in technological education shows positive correlation to later economic growth, I am again surprised by the lack of any positive feedback to the kernel of truth in President Obansanjo's statement (i.e., the need to stimulate technical education in Nigerian Universities). While the words could have been chosen better, I am not completely at odds with the claim that as a developing nation there is a need on a policy level to invest in technology education.