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Africa home to only 2.3 per cent world’s researchers

By | August 10th 2011

By Wachira Kigotho

A leading East African political scientist, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, who is the director of Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research has put universities in Sub-Saharan Africa in the dock by accusing them of not creating researchers but churning out native informers to national and international non-governmental organisations.

Addressing academics and students recently at Makerere, Mamdani said academic research and higher education in most African universities is controlled and dominated by a corrosive culture of consultancy. “Today, intellectual life in universities has been reduced to bare-bones classroom activity while academic extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels,” said Mamdani.

But whereas some academics might disagree with Mamdani, statistics from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) indicates all is not well with the African academe, as the entire African continent is home to only 2.3 per cent of world’s researchers. Unesco defines researchers as professionals who are engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems.

Unesco estimates on average, Africa has only 169 researchers per one million inhabitants. Apart from having the lowest density of researchers in the world, investment in research and development in Africa stands at 0.9 per cent.

Excluding South Africa, intensity in research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa is merely 0.3 per cent. Unfortunately, whereas the percentage of Gross Domestic Product devoted to research and development has significantly increased in other regions, it has dropped or stagnated in almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa besides South Africa.

But according to Mamdani, the little research capacity that exists in Africa, especially in universities, is driven by culture of consultancy and global market trends. His general thesis is that researchers in African universities are being used to provide raw material – in form of data – to foreign academics who process it and then re-export it back to Africa. He told his audience that research proposals from African universities are increasingly descriptive accounts of data collection and the methods used to collate data.

Financial aid

Mamdani told his audience collaboration has been reduced to assistance, and now there is an emerging theory that African academics cannot do research without outside financial aid. He said consultancy culture is being institutionalised in African universities through basic courses in research methodology, courses that teach students a set of tools to gather and process quantitative information from which to cull answers.

“Proliferation of short courses on methodology that aim to teach students and academic staff quantitative methods necessary to gathering and processing empirical data are ushering a new generation of native informers,” said Mamdani.

However, the Ugandan scholar believes researchers should be involved in formulating their own research problems without influence from non governmental organistions or intellectual property raiders. He noted the pervasive culture of consultancy is deeply rooted and has created an attitude of dependency to a point that most African academics cannot even write scholarly papers without outside funding. “Academic papers have turned into corporate-style power point presentations and academics read less and less,” he said.

Consultancy driven

The culture of consultancy has radically changed postgraduate education and research  as consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. Mamdani says consultancy driven postgraduate education requires immediate answers to research problems. “It has almost become a matter of policy in most African universities for PhD students to provide a set of recommendations from their thesis for use by the funding external non-governmental organisations,” says Mamdani.

The issue is that in most universities across Sub-Saharan African, postgraduate programmes at PhD level have almost collapsed and what is left has been hijacked by external non-governmental organisations. Unesco says such pitfalls prevail in African universities because state funded PhD programmes have almost collapsed.

For instance, in Kenya, as in so many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is no national funding mechanism for research. “Even public universities have no funding for increasing PhDs and no longer measure their performance based on PhD output, journal articles or patents registered each year,” says Prof Anthony Rodrigues of the School of Computing and Informatics at the University of Nairobi.

The emerging scenario is that funding scarcities in African universities have led scholars to market driven research where quality control is almost absent. “Moonlighting for donor agencies has endangered the quality of teaching and research in Kenya’s universities,” says the current Unesco World Social Science Report.

Even then, internal brain drain is less talked about, or its impact on quality in higher education properly understood.

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