Major research into African universities has been "myth-busting", says Professor Peter Maassen of the University of Oslo, co-author of a new report on higher education and development on the continent. The study revealed that flagship universities in eight African countries are more similar to institutions elsewhere than is generally perceived, with well-qualified staff, positive student-to-staff ratios, and rising enrolments including in science, engineering and technology.
"The applicability of the research is important," Maassen told a seminar hosted by UNESCO in Paris last Wednesday. "This is the first major academic comparative study of higher education in Africa, but it is also linked to what happens outside Africa."
Case studies were conducted of Finland, South Korea and North Carolina in the US, and the research "used an analytical framework that can be applied to other countries and institutions. So while the research focused on universities in Africa, it was not foremost an African study."
The seminar was held to present and discuss findings of research conducted by HERANA, the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa.
The meeting was chaired by Dr Lidia Brito, Director of UNESCO's Division of Science Policy and Sustainable Development and a former minister of higher education in Mozambique. The UN agency has expressed interest in using the findings to inform higher education policy development in Africa.
HERANA is an expertise network developing higher education studies and research in Africa, driven by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, in Cape Town. University World News (Africa) is a partner.
Its just-published report, Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination was authored by Professor Nico Cloete, the director of CHET, HERANA project manager and researcher Tracy Bailey, and Peter Maassen. The University of Oslo is HERANA's international partner university.
Maassen said that around the world, countries were realising that universities were core knowledge institutions that should play a key role in national and regional development. This was also the case in Africa, although a challenge was to develop a national vision of the knowledge economy and the central role of universities in it.
The research started by studying flagship universities. Maassen drew on an analogy of higher education as a snake-like process, "where the body wants to be where the head is, but by the time it gets there the head has moved on. We started with the heads.
"We assumed that the findings regarding the flagship universities would have relevance for other flagships universities in Africa. From there we can get a better understanding of emerging institutions and systems."
The HERANA research surveyed higher education stakeholders in eight African countries, including governments and flagship universities: Botswana, Ghana, Nairobi (Kenya), Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Makerere (Uganda). In South Africa, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University was selected as a comparable institution. The University of Cape Town, Africa's top-ranked institution, was included in research into the 'academic core' at universities.
As in most other regions, flagship universities in Africa are usually the oldest universities, located in the capital, with a range of disciplines and fields. "They have the same knowledge components, the same international connections, as universities elsewhere," Maassen said.
African universities are widely perceived to be dysfunctional institutions with poorly qualified academics teaching grossly overcrowded classes, primarily in the humanities and social sciences.
But at the flagship universities studied, Maassen said, "many staff members have PhDs and many of the PhDs are from universities in North America and Europe". While two of the universities were weak in terms of staff qualifications, at several a third to half of academics had doctorates, and this figure was two in three academics at Cape Town and 71% at Nairobi.
Also, said Maassen, the research revealed that student-to-staff ratios were "rather positive". The highest ratio was at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan in South Africa, where there were 30 students per academic, but at most of the universities the ratio was between 10 and 17 to one.
While African countries still have low participation rates in higher education, "there has been dramatic growth in student numbers". Students are enrolled especially at the bachelor level, and in terms of time taken to study, success rates are high.
"The universities are highly productive, at the bachelor level among the most efficient in the world", Maassen said.
Further, African universities are enrolling rising numbers of students in science, engineering and technology - fields considered important to economic development. "Another myth is that there is no capacity at the government level. We found some highly qualified and motivated people."
The research also uncovered many challenges.
One, Maassen told the seminar, was "a dramatic need to build capacity at the graduate level". While student numbers were rising, this was less so at the masters and PhD level and the numbers of postgraduates was barely increasing.
"Professors need to be incentivised to take supervision seriously, and there needs to be much more effective support for postgraduate students, in supervision and resources," he added.
"There are lots of innovative examples around the world, for instance of graduate schools, and such initiatives can be taken in universities or regionally or continentally. Africa needs to invest in this area, and ensure that excellent undergraduates continue their studies."
A second challenge was in academic output. While the qualification levels of academics in African universities were similar to those many other countries, there were few incentives to produce new knowledge or publish internationally.
This was especially important in flagship African universities, Maassen pointed out, because more than elsewhere in the world, they are central to knowledge production. "The University of Makerere in Uganda produces 60% of the country's academic output. Countries elsewhere are not so dependent for research on universities - or even on one university."
Third, he said, the research found high levels of fragmentation in higher education. "There are lots of high quality projects, but they are disconnected from the rest of the university and are often not linked to faculties or schools.
"The challenge is how to build on centres of excellence that exist and profit from them. This is not just a challenge in Africa but elsewhere too. How to use nodes of excellence to build profiles for research-intensive universities."
A fourth challenge was lack of coordination between higher education stakeholders. "There is dramatic disagreement about the role of universities in development, and this makes it difficult to know what is expected of universities."
This was a challenge for all higher education stakeholders, including international donors, which the research found had invested some US$1.5 billion in African higher education in the past decade.
"With coordination, these investments could have been far more effective. It is crucial that donors move away from their national priority areas and try to coordinate efforts to achieve the knowledge goals and development challenges that universities in Africa face. There is a need for more long-term commitments to research. Why is it not there?"
Finally, said Maassen, lack of research funding is a major challenge. This is one of the reasons why professors abandon research and turn to consultancy. But consultancy rarely produces PhDs or international publication. "It is a vicious circle. If consultancy is taken away, it would have major negative effects on institutions. But the impacts are also negative if it continues."
Maassen stressed the need to build regional research strengths around core areas, such as food processing. "Academics told us that incentives were needed to create strong regional networks."
The HERANA report calls for the creation of an African research council, based on the European Research Council, to provide funding to stimulate innovation and increase research output. "This is a major challenge. And to be blunt, it is a challenge that can be sorted out with political commitment," Maassen concluded.
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