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The cultural setting of research
Researchers in economically advanced countries exert considerable influence on their colleagues in low- and middle-income countries. Whether the latter unconsciously absorb or consciously follow the presumed success stories they read or hear about, or whether they are affected by researchers who have studied abroad and bring these attitudes back home with them, they adopt the same approaches they believe will improve the quality of their work and help modernise the higher education and research taking place in their own nations.

Writing about the cultural setting of research in the Research Report of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, Urich Teichler and Yasemin Yagci say that this response is seen by many experts as appropriate given the increasing 'global interconnectedness' of knowledge and the effective role models researchers in advanced economies present.

But they note, in the chapter titled "Changing Challenges of Academic Work: Concepts and observations", that others involved in the UNESCO Forum see a danger in higher education and research in developing countries being too strongly determined by that taking place in the economically advanced world.

The writers refer to a "carry-over of the colonial past" coupled with attempts by researchers in middle- and low-income countries to equal developed nations with the modernisation of their systems of higher education and research.

Yet this can result in an unwillingness to tackle local problems or take account of local needs and indigenous cultures. There is also the danger that it can be accompanied by lack of confidence on the part of local researchers in their own work.

These concerns have led to a search for new strategies in developing countries as their academics and researchers become aware of the limitations in adopting the practices and orientation of economically advanced nations. As one observer says: "New approaches need to be devised or explored within local contexts. There seems to be a paradigm shift towards integration of local knowledge into education systems, albeit slow, that calls for a need to adapt research priorities and practices to better reflect local points of view."

Teichler and Yagci refer to authors who point out that academics and politicians in low and middle-income countries have attitudes which counter the emergence of a reasonable balance between a focus on basic research and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake on the one hand, and the relevance of research on the other.

They draw attention to the Commission on Health Research which argued that development efforts and solving local problems through local means must be holistically considered; that technological knowledge alone is not sufficient. Understanding the people and the environment, especially their peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses, is essential.

"Situation-specific knowledge and site-specific data are also crucial," the commission said. "One of the great mistakes in the past was the adoption of ways to solve local problems by solutions imported from elsewhere. Social and cultural beliefs, as well as genetic and environmental conditions, are important for sustainable success and compliance with new health measures. Effectiveness, cost-benefit, safety, feasibility and acceptability must be determined along with how to adapt to local economic, socio-cultural and political conditions."

In discussing and debating these issues at the UNESCO Forum, various experts came to the conclusion that the search for solutions to combine cutting-edge research approaches with awareness and inclusion of local knowledge paradigms in developing countries could be strengthened. This was more likely to happen, though, if more 'research on research' was undertaken and if its findings were well disseminated.

This led to a recommendation being formulated in the Forum that stated: "We have very little secure and valid knowledge about the conditions under which research is conducted, the factors that make for good or bad research, the ways incentives or disincentives work in research. One of the urgent needs for the future... is therefore a more systematic programme of rigorous research on research."

* Professor Ulrich Teichler is immediate past Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany. He has published more than 1,000 academic publications, especially on higher education and the world of work, international comparisons of higher education systems, and international cooperation and mobility in higher education.

* Yasemin Yağci is a PhD student and research assistant in the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
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