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Placing African universities in global knowledge production

By Duncan Omanga | September 22nd 2018
University of Embu chancellor Prof Paul Musili installs Prof Daniel Mugendi as the first Vice Chancellor of the institution last week. (Joseph Muchiri, Standard)

Thanks to JPR Ochieng Odero, a leading researcher, trustee of Kenya’s National Research Fund, and a team leader of the East Africa Research Fund, I got a link to a recently published academic piece in The Lancet on rethinking research in Africa.

The article, bearing the title ‘repositioning Africa in global knowledge production’, was penned by Adam Habib (Witwatersrand University), Laban Ayiro (Moi University), Philip Cotton (University of Rwanda), Alfred Mtenje (University of Malawi), Peter Mbithi (University of Nairobi), Barnabas Nawangwe (Makerere University), Eyitope O Ogunbodede (Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria), Idowu Olayinka (University of Ibadan) among other academic leaders.

It sheds tremendous light on what African universities ought to do to redeem their future research credentials. Coming from academics who have sat at the helm of some of Africa’s most notable universities, the ideas proposed in this article are provocative, radical and most probably inevitable.

Some of the issues raised and proposals given by the authors have been raised in this column before, albeit with a more sense of urgency. There is a reason for this urgency. Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, accounts for 13.5 per cent of the global population but less than one per cent of global research output.

A decade ago, the number of published papers from this region, 27,000 in total, were equal to that produced by tiny Netherlands, a country of about 17 million people and measuring only 41,543 square kilometres and slightly smaller than Kenya’s Garissa County. 

This is a reflection of the lean times that African universities have faced, especially in the past two decades. In the 60s, African universities benefitted from a rare political commitment, demonstrated in generous funding from these states.

Most African countries used 10-35 per cent of their national budgets on education, with a similar percentage going to higher education. This honeymoon was to last up to the late 70s and early 80s. The 80s and 90s marked a gradual downturn of university education in Africa, with universities becoming centres of politicisation, victims of harsh structural adjustment programmes, and a general cut in funding. Meanwhile, Africa’s population continued to soar even as enrollment tripled.

The results of some progressive policy change in higher education in the last few years is beginning to show, albeit in trickles. The pulse of research is beginning to show beeps, even as citations from the continent improve. But the record is still generally poor and confined to only very few geographical centres of the continent.

African governments contribute less and less to research (one per cent to global expenditure on research). Increasingly, the quality of training and research is jeopardised by ageing infrastructure, too much teaching load, inadequate PhDs, pervasive labour disputes, poor governance structures, invasive politics, poor intra-Africa collaboration and the increasing tendency in which Africa is seen more as an object of research, than as a research front-runner in itself.

So what should be done to spike research output in Africa? First, universities require proper funding. Until this changes, the situation will only grow worse. Second, and which the authors of this article gave voice to, was the differentiation of university education in Africa. This column has twice argued that Kenya needs to differentiate between research and teaching universities to redeem their role in national development.

Across the continent, research-intensive universities need to be identified, recognised and isolated for a deliberate, concentrated investment. This column has argued that the so named Kenya's big five, or seven, be set apart as research universities. The rest might be designated as teaching universities but with a clear track of changing status.

According to the authors, the inevitability of such a decision lies in the reality that by 2050, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will have doubled, and the demand for faculty with advanced training is needed. To ensure that research-intensive universities do not fall into complacency, the vice chancellors propose a 3-5 year peer review supranational and broadly representative body, which would allow research aspiring universities to sign up for consideration, and underperforming research universities to lose their designations.

These universities would then spearhead research demonstrated by their funding models, their capacity to attract and retain leading researchers, generating grants and a deliberate focus at PhD supervision and post-doctoral training. These universities must demonstrate good research management, and a high level of transparency and accountability.

This accountability, the authors argue, must extend to ‘efficient use of resources and achieving economies of scale. Best practise must also guide PhD-level training, including that only eligible academics, irrespective of age, sex, or traditional hierarchy, should supervise doctoral students'.

The authors, being mostly VCs, carefully glossed over the issue of labour and the disruptions it is causing to the research agenda in African universities. They argue that research universities must consider freeing up existing posts currently filled by non-research-active staff (a polite way of saying non-research active academies should be terminated). I agree with recommendations to make available opportunities for post-retirement contracts only to departing staff that promote institutional research; mentorship and role-modelling so that new graduates can carry on traditions of research excellence upheld by their mentors.

Still, implicit in the lofty and noble ideals of creating a differentiated university structure in Africa, is the reality of individuated remuneration. In this sense, to attract the leading researchers in respective fields as envisaged, most of whom have migrated to better paying jobs in Europe and North America, the designated aspiring and research universities in Africa must allow room to think creatively on their remuneration models.

While the current model in Kenya has its strengths, it masks intellectual mediocrity, promotes deadwood academics, and legitimises an adversarial culture of labour relations between universities and unions in Africa, whose overall effect is a distraction from the academic mission of universities.

The writer lectures at Moi University and is currently a British Academy visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, UK.

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