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AFRICA: Lack of agreement over role of universities

There is a surprising lack of clarity and agreement in Africa about a development model and the role of higher education in development, at both the national and university levels, research into eight countries has revealed. Only in Mauritius is there evidence of a 'pact' between stakeholders over higher education's role, says a recently published report.

"None of the eight countries has a development model per se, although Mauritius is moving in that direction." The Indian Ocean island state is one of Africa's most developed nations and is set firmly on a knowledge and higher education growth path.

Interestingly, while there is an "emerging awareness" in the countries about the importance of a knowledge economy approach to development and higher education, it is stronger at the national government level than it is in universities.

The study was undertaken by the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa. HERANA is an expertise network aimed at developing higher education studies and research in Africa, and is driven by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, in Cape Town. University World News is a partner.

The research focuses on universities and economic development, and surveyed a range of higher education stakeholders including governments and universities. The institutions were Botswana, Ghana, Nairobi (Kenya), Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Makerere (Uganda) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan (South Africa).

Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination is authored by Professor Nico Cloete, the director of CHET, HERANA project manager and researcher Tracy Bailey, and Peter Maassen, a professor of higher education at the University of Oslo, HERANA's international partner university.

Among other research areas they explored the extent to which there is a 'pact' around the role of higher education in economic development in the eight African countries.

A 'pact' is seen as a fairly long-term cultural commitment to and from the university, validated by the political and social system in which the university is embedded. "The key actors in the pact are national, institutional and external stakeholders," the authors write.

"It is assumed that the stronger the pact between universities, university leadership, national authorities and society at large, the better the universities will be able to make a significant, sustained contribution to development."

Key to the development of a pact, argue Cloete, Bailey and Maassen, is agreement that there should be a role for higher education in development, and then what that role should be.

They collected and analysed national and institutional strategies and plans, and conducted interviews with a range of national stakeholders including representatives of ministries and higher education councils, university leaders, research and planning heads, deans, centre directors and senior academics.

It became evident, the report says, that none of the eight African countries had "a clearly articulated development model or strategy".

Some countries had national development plans (Uganda, Botswana and Mozambique), others had poverty reduction strategies (Ghana and Mozambique), and several had national visions "usually focused far away in time".

"However, these do not constitute development models and are often based on 'best practice' policy-borrowing from first world countries.

"Mauritius comes the closest to a fully fledged development model with its generally agreed upon national vision and an array of policies, but as yet without the requisite coordination, implementation and monitoring powers," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.

"The other countries are characterised by frequently changing national priority announcements, often around the budget speech, and a plethora of non-complementary policies in different centres of power."

The researchers looked at the policies and plans of departments responsible for higher education, economic development and science and technology, to ascertain whether they featured the knowledge economy and a role for higher education in development. The information was operationalised into a series of indicators.

Kenya and Mauritius, the researchers found, "exhibited the strongest awareness of the concept of the knowledge economy and a role for higher education in development, followed by Mozambique and Tanzania".

But with the exception of Mauritius, "this awareness was not reflected across policies, but was predominantly found in the science and technology policy or in the long-term national vision" and was, problematically, "mostly absent from the policies of ministries responsible for higher education".

At the institutional level, they write, "the role of the knowledge economy was explicitly articulated in the policies or plans of the universities of Botswana, Mauritius and Makerere, and was absent at the University of Ghana".

None of the universities had specific policies regarding the institution's role in economic development, but this role was embedded in the strategic plan and-or research policy of the universities of Botswana, Nairobi, Mauritius and Makerere. It was not articulated at Eduardo Mondlane, Dar es Salaam or Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Next, the researchers looked at how national and institutional stakeholders conceptualise the role of higher education and the university in development, and the extent to which there is consensus or disjuncture between the national and institutional levels.

Their conceptual framework comprised four notions of the relationship between higher education and national development.

* A first notion is of the university as ancillary. Development is politically or ideologically driven, so it is assumed there is no need for a strong (scientific) knowledge basis for development strategies and policies. The role of universities is to produce educated civil servants and professionals, and to serve communities.
* A second notion is the university as a 'self-governing' institution that contributes to development indirectly by, among other things, producing high-level skills and scientific knowledge. The university is committed to serving society as a whole and is most effective when left to itself. There is no need to invest additional public funds to increase its relevance.
* A third notion, dominant in and outside universities, is 'instrumentalist'. It sees an important role for the university in development - not through producing new knowledge but by applying its concentration of expertise to pressing social problems.
* A fourth 'engine of development' notion, accepted in many advanced countries, assumes that knowledge plays a core role in development by producing high-level skills and use-oriented knowledge. Knowledge and innovation must be strengthened as crucial productive forces without which no country can participate in the global knowledge economy.

The researchers drew on these notions and data gathered through interviews with national and university stakeholders, for an analysis of the notions of the role of knowledge and universities in the eight African countries.

At the national level they make three main observations. The first is that the instrumental notion is the strongest, followed by engine of development and self-governing.

"Secondly, the engine of development notion is to be found mainly in science and technology policies and in national vision statements, but seldom in ministries of education - with the exceptions of Botswana and Mauritius.

"The references to knowledge economy, and its importance in vision statements, seem to draw considerably from 'policy-borrowing', particularly from World Bank and OECD sources and websites," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.

"Thirdly, in the case of the instrumental notion, most national government officials feel that the university is not doing enough, but there are no policies that spell out, or incentivise, this instrumental role."

Among universities, the self-governance and instrumental roles were dominant. Only in the universities of Ghana and Dar es Salaam was there still "a fairly traditional notion of the university producing personpower for the nation, and of the university "knowing best what is required".

"Mauritius is the only institution with the engine of development as the dominant discourse, and it corresponds with the view of government." At NMMU, a university created out of a merger between a 'traditional' university and a polytechnic, "all four notions are still in contestation".

Bailey, Cloete and Maasan conclude that the most striking finding of the research was the lack of clarity and a 'pact' about a development model and the role of higher education in development, at both national and institutional levels.

"Mauritius is also the only country that states upfront that knowledge drives economic growth. For the other countries, knowledge is not yet considered to be key to economic development." However, they report, there "is clearly an emerging awareness about the importance of the knowledge economy approach in all the countries and institutions".

In terms of the four notions of the role of the university in development, at both national and institutional levels "the most obvious unresolved tension is between the self-governance and instrumental roles. This reflects the well-known tension between institutional autonomy, on the one hand, and engagement or responsiveness, on the other," the researchers write.

At the national level, the dominant expectation from higher education is an instrumental role, "with a constant refrain that the university is not doing enough to contribute to development - but often referring to social problems, and not economic growth," the authors write.

"The engine of development notion is stronger among government stakeholders than within the universities, but it could be that government sees knowledge as a narrow instrumental, rather than an engine of development notion. It is nevertheless surprising that among university leadership the support for a knowledge economy approach is so weak."
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