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African universities must regain their ‘lost research mission’

2017-11-10 00:03

Cutting-edge research on key issues can go a long way in addressing some of Africa most pressing challenges. It is therefore important that universities on the continent also focus on research besides teaching and community engagement.

Research has not always been prioritised by universities in Africa for a number of reasons. Perhaps Africa University Day, observed on November 12, is an opportune time to reflect on why this has been the case and what universities can do to enhance their research activities in the 21st century.

In the 1940s, African universities were established with the triple mission of teaching, research, and community engagement. However, in the ensuing decades, particularly the period between the mid-1960s and 2000, teaching became the only de facto mission of many of these universities and research took a backseat.

After most African countries gained independence, their national governments attempted to nationalise universities and to limit research. When military governments came to power, they also interfered with the administration of universities by appointing their political affiliates to positions of authority, and in some cases, instructing heads of universities on how the institutions should be managed. Due to unstable governments, universities lacked the necessary funding, a critical mass of researchers and infrastructure to conduct research. Not surprisingly, African universities “lost” their research mission.

Evidence of this “lost research mission” period can be found in the low research output of the continent during that period. For example, data from the Thomson Reuters WoS-Science citation index shows that Africa, excluding South Africa, produced 1646 publications between 1985 and 2000 and 5534 publications between 2000 and 2015 within the sciences. These numbers fall well below the total global scientific output for the same period, of nearly 45 million (mostly from Europe and the United States). In addition, during the period of the “lost research mission”, the ratio of gross domestic expenditure on research and development to gross domestic product of all African countries, excluding South Africa, was less than 0.2 percent — and non-existent in most African countries.

What these statistics show is that African universities and their governments did not see research as a priority, which resulted in a very low research output. Postgraduate research was virtually non-existent and universities only carried out their mandate of developing human resources for their respective countries. African universities were associated with, among others, terms such as “teaching”, “vocational”, and “developmental”.

Furthermore, academics at African universities were mostly interested in research that would facilitate their promotion within academia and this is reflected in low research outputs of universities since their researchers needed fewer publications to be promoted. Research findings were hardly disseminated to the public and, in some cases, were kept confidential. Subjective evidence suggests that research from universities were also under siege from dictatorial governments that did not like researchers publishing anything contrary to the official standpoint. This forced universities to focus on knowledge for its own sake.

Since 2000, however, African universities have been trying to regain their “lost research mission” by having research as a new mission and vision. They started to shift policies and to embrace global changes in their missions and visions. This shift was necessitated by, among others, global university rankings, internationalisation, and the massification of higher education. These issues prompted university administrators and national governments to reconsider the “lost” research mission.

Post 2004, universities have begun to invest more effort into doing research and publishing in accredited international journals. Postgraduate studies have also been enhanced, especially at master and doctoral levels, by recruiting more professors to undertake the supervision of research graduates and by establishing laboratories where research can be conducted.

In an attempt to improve their research and research outputs, most of the continent’s flagship universities started developing and implementing research policies, establishing offices of research and development and schools or faculties of research and graduate studies.

The belief is that these research offices will increase the focus of universities’ research, improve the quality of research, help develop and implement research policies, create networks for research collaboration and attract funding.

However, to sustain the new research missions of African universities, there will be a need to ensure that institutions such as the National Research Foundations in South Africa do not cut funding to top rated researchers as it recently proposed. In addition, the new research policies, missions and visions of African universities should focus on solving major challenges such as disease, inequality, conflict, food insecurity, illiteracy and the lack of housing.

Also, African universities must improve every aspect of the research value chain and establish trust among universities, industries and governments on their research. Research findings should benefit their national governments and communities and contribute to development and the knowledge economy.

Bad governance in most African countries has made research in African universities lag for four decades, while universities in Europe, the United States and certain Asian countries have made significant progress. To establish themselves as research universities, African institutions will need to overcome enormous challenges, including lack of funding; publishing in predatory journals; lack of appropriate structures for research evaluation; lack of integrity among its scientists; and a need to ensure research accountability, which is presently non-existent.

To address these challenges, all stakeholders should join forces to find lasting solutions and to ensure research activities are improved and sustained at all levels. This will help African universities to truly regain their “lost” research mission.

Harris Andoh is a research policy expert at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University.

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November 19 2017