Why universities should promote research at all academic levels

University of Nairobi students during a graduation ceremony at the graduation square for the 51st graduation ceremony on Friday 28th, August 2014. [Photo/Jonah Onyango/Standard].

Universities in sub-Saharan Africa have been undergoing a crisis of identity.

Initially established by the colonial administration as centres to train mid-level professionals and thereafter given the task of building local meritocratic bureaucracy for newly independent states, pursuit of new knowledge has never been the forte of these institutions.

Although the role of the African universities in nation-building has been politically amplified, this aspect has never been actively supported beyond these institutions being regarded as status symbols and providers of manpower.

Academic excellence

But in recent years, most of them have been trying hard to assert themselves by creating elitist academic visibility and laying claim to being universities, a status that many of them just seem to have in name only.

Such is the situation in Kenya, where most universities are spending money in image-building by claiming to be world-class research institutions or centres of academic excellence but lack capacity to run credible under-graduate programmes.

But what is a world-class university? In real sense, a world-class university is also a research institution that is not just among the highly ranked but is at the centre stage of the global innovation and knowledge economy.

According to Dr Jamil Salmi, a global tertiary education expert, a world-class or elite university is expected to compete with the best of the best.

In a World Bank study, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, Salmi argues that becoming a member of world-class universities is not achieved by a mere self-declaration.

Rather, the elite status is conferred by the outside world on the basis of global recognition.

“But while there is no universal recipe or magic formula for making a world-class university, highest-ranked institutions are the ones that make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge through research and teaching with the most innovative curriculum and pedagogical methods,” says Salmi, a former tertiary education coordinator at the World Bank.

In his analysis, Salmi found another hallmark of world-class universities as the capability to produce outstanding graduates in intensely competitive academic disciplines.

Such stiff criteria can only be met by a few universities globally.

According to Philip Altbach, a research professor and director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, universities categorised as world-class are also known as research universities.

In the study, Advancing the National and Global Knowledge Economy: The Role of Research Universities in Developing Countries, Altbach says such institutions are few even in developed countries.

“In the US, there are perhaps 220 research universities, in an academic system of more than 4,000 post-secondary institutions,” says Altbach.

In Britain, the Russell Group of research-intensive universities include just 24 of the country’s 100 universities. China is developing about 100 research universities out of 3,000 as part of its initiative to develop world-class institutions.

Although many universities in Kenya have been re-branding themselves as world-class or research universities, only the University of Nairobi comes near being a genuine research university.

In this regard, Kenya’s oldest institution of higher learning joins Makerere University and University of Dar-es-Salaam as the only establishments in East Africa that are near world-class status.

Following guidelines set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on identification of world-class universities, most flag-staff universities in sub-Saharan Africa were found to be weak in key areas that included publication in peer-reviewed journals, knowledge production in form of doctoral graduates, graduation rates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and enrolment mix between undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Although doctoral graduates form the backbone of academia and are therefore critical to the future reproduction of academic staff, their graduation rates was found to be far too low in all flag-staff universities across SSA, apart from South Africa.

At the University of Nairobi, Makerere, University of Dar-es-salaam, University of Ghana and University of Mauritius and in so many universities that are highly regarded, the problem was attributed to inadequate research funds.

There were also indicators that increased taught masters degrees seemed not to inspire confidence in students to enroll for PhDs.

“But whatever the reason, the effect is reducing PhD numbers that could be part of the knowledge-production process,” says Prof Nico Cloete, the coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa and director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust.

Robust systems

But while sub-Saharan Africa is at the bottom of every indicator in research and world-class universities, Paul Zeleza, the vice-chancellor of United States International University-Africa (USIU) thinks there could be a light at the end of the tunnel if initiatives to support higher education were expanded to build robust academic research systems.

A case in point is in South Africa where the government subsidises each university to the tune of about Sh4.5 million per PhD graduate and Sh1.5 million per publication in an accredited journal.

But two of the universities with the highest publication rates per permanent academic -- University of Cape Town and Rhodes University -- do not pass a portion of the subsidy directly to the academic but put it in a pool which funds common research infrastructure.

There is no doubt that every university in Kenya, or elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, would love a high academic rating. Unfortunately such a status will not be achieved through self-declarations.

Still, within the local situation, the onus is on the Government to determine as to what type and number of universities Kenya should have -- seeing as it is that Kenyan universities have lost the sheen and should now find ways to become tools of social and economic progress.