Development aid from donor countries to Africa is usually directed to issues identified as priorities in the home country's development agenda - issues such as HIV and Aids, poverty reduction, primary health care and food security, among others - according to Peter Maassen, professor of higher education at the University of Oslo. This kind of focus is often at the expense of high-level knowledge development such as that produced within the research culture of universities.
But the neglect of knowledge, in development cooperation with sub-Saharan African countries, can jeopardise the impact of development cooperation in the targeted areas, said Maassen at a recent colloquium in Oslo on Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa: Findings and implications for development aid, hosted by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, NORAD.
"The long-term agenda of donor countries is broad social development in the recipient countries, but this is in conflict with donor demands for short-term impact and reporting deadlines," argued Maassen. The consequence is that where development aid finds its way into universities, it does so in forms that do not contribute to sustained development of the academic core of the institution.
In fact, Maassen went on to say, projects funded by development aid can weaken the academic core by drawing away academic capacity, reducing academic output, and contributing to the neglect of research. The structure of many projects places them at the periphery of institutions where the best outcome is the development of largely isolated pockets of excellence, and the worst is that projects become unsustainable and die when funding dries up, with no lasting legacy for the institution.
These observations were based on the findings of a study of eight selected universities in Ghana, Mauritius, Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique. The study is part of the research component of the HERANA - Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa - programme run by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) in Cape Town.
Externally funded projects at these universities were rated according to their link with institutional strategic objectives and-or national development priorities and, secondly, in relation to their capacity to strengthen the academic core of the institution measured in terms of links to teaching and curriculum development, the involvement of students as part of their formal training, research publication arising from the projects, building links to international academic networks and the production of new knowledge.
Very few projects met these criteria. Development cooperation with African universities ranges from individual support to projects aimed at contributing to the public good, but the missing element is the development and production of knowledge.
Broad social and economic development are the victims in this scenario and in part this is the consequence of a failure to make the kind of link between higher education and economic development that is being made in many OECD countries, where there is a strong policy focus on knowledge and innovation.
Presenting the broader findings of the HERANA research project, CHET Director Dr Nico Cloete explained that an important aim of the project was to explore the dominant conceptions of the relationship between higher education and development in the eight African countries, as manifest in national policies on the one hand, and institutional visions and plans on the other.
"In Tanzania," he reported, "the concept of a knowledge economy features in some national development policies, but there is a complete absence of mechanisms to steer higher education towards development."
This is matched on the institutional side by the lack of any formal policies at the University of Dar es Salaam with regard to its role in economic development, said Cloete. "At most, economic development initiatives may be aspects of a unit or a specific appointment, and while there is some acknowledgement of the importance of this role at an institutional level, this is not reflected in the university's policies."
In Uganda, on the other hand, the position is almost completely reversed: the notion of a knowledge economy is not mentioned in national policies, but features strongly in Makerere University's strategic plan and research policy. Implementation, however, is patchy at best, with mainly ad hoc activities initiated by members of staff.
"There is talk about globalisation," said Cloete, "but no real acknowledgement of knowledge as a driver of development." The University has a traditional view of its role with an emphasis on training for the civil service and the professions, but it is also trying to shift the locus of 'knowledge' activities away from consultancy and towards research.
Development economist Dr Pundy Pillay argued that there is strong evidence that higher education can be a key factor in promoting economic growth and development.
The traditional sequence of economic development in the past has been from primary (agricultural), to secondary (manufacturing) to tertiary (services) production, but globalisation is changing this pattern. China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico are key instances of countries that have 'jumped' stages of economic development, and higher education has played a critical role in this process.
For Pillay, there is a vital relationship between higher education, technology and growth. Investment in higher education enhances the ability of the workforce to both adopt and adapt technology, leading to increases in 'total factor productivity' while also improving technology diffusion, decreasing knowledge gaps and reducing poverty.
Inequality of opportunity, especially of access to higher education, can act as a serious constraint on economic development: "So although it's possible to have economic growth without growth in higher education, such as in Mozambique and Uganda, that kind of growth will exacerbate social and economic inequalities rather than reduce them," Pundy argued.
Investment in higher education also correlates strongly with social development as demonstrated by indicators such as the Human Development Index. However, external funding for African universities is low and is largely sourced from donor agencies whose support is tied to their development agendas, which in turn are not focussed on knowledge and innovation.
In sharp contrast, Nordic universities enjoy high levels of external funding for research from a variety of agencies including National Research Councils, the European Union and other public and private sector bodies, claimed Peter Maassen. Most important, however, is that external funding in Nordic countries is driven by a combination of academic excellence and clearly understood national and strategic policy goals.
Maassen went on to identify a number of other factors that enable Nordic universities to make a significant contribution to the performance of their knowledge economies and these included a thoroughly institutionalised environment, high levels of trust and of public funding, and strategic capacity. The most critical enabling factor, said Maasen, was a strong social consensus (what he termed a 'pact') around the importance of higher education.
But in African countries there is no such 'pact': ministries of education are frequently weak within government structures, and the result is that public funding is low.
The findings of the HERANA project show that even where a 'knowledge economy' discourse is present, there is a disjuncture between the language and policies of government and those of the universities, as shown in the cases of Tanzania and Uganda. "There is little evidence of an emerging agreement on the importance, or role, of the university in development," concluded Cloete.
Such an agreement, or pact, is a key condition in order for universities to play their role in development, if for no other reason than that this opens the way for expanded public funding of higher education.
The emphasis on knowledge for development requires extensive strengthening of the academic core of universities - in the building of strong science and technology programmes, in increased postgraduate enrolments and improved graduation rates, academic staff with doctorates, in teaching workloads that enable research to be undertaken, in improved academic salaries that militate against the need to take on 'extra' jobs and consultancies, and in dedicated funding for research. Findings from HERANA show a strong correlation between low levels of funding and low levels of research output.
The challenge, according to Maassen, is to place knowledge and innovation at the centre of national development strategies. This implies developing a research culture in sub-Saharan African universities. But to do this, donor countries would have to relinquish their demand for short-term outcomes. Investing in research capacity is long term and will not deliver immediate results.
One possible strategy would be the commitment of 10% to 15% of current donor funding (estimated at between US$1 billion and 1.5 billion) to set up an African Research Council with dedicated research project funds.
At present, within African universities, participation rates are low and research is limited, as indicated by negligible research publications. Contrasting African and Nordic higher education, Maassen pointed out that African institutions have 80% to 90% of their students enrolled at undergraduate level, compared to 30% to 50% in Nordic institutions. Graduation rates at postgraduate level are low compared to Nordic universities, but on the positive side, postgraduate enrolments are growing, as are enrolments in science, engineering and technology programmes.
The task is to put in place incentives that will connect research projects to development needs in a way that strengthens the academic core of institutions, and does not weaken them through short-term projects that cannot contribute to sustainable development, nor build capacity for research and innovation.
* Dr Trish Gibbon is director of academic planning and policy implementation at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters