While African governments coordinate higher education at the national level, this is largely "symbolic" and most ministries do not have effective steering mechanisms, a three-year study of universities in eight African countries has found. This, along with lack of coordination of and connectedness to external groups, is undermining the potential of universities to contribute to economic development.
Tertiary education councils have been created partially to compensate for weak ministries, and they could become "key players" in monitoring the coordination and implementation of knowledge policies, according to the study by the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA.
Few universities have special funding or incentives for development-related research, and there is "virtually no evidence of university engagement in R&D with or for industry". But there are exemplary development projects and centres in African universities. The challenge is to expand these world-class activities.
HERANA is an expertise network aimed at developing higher education studies and research in Africa, driven by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, in Cape Town. University World News is a partner.
Its recently published synthesis report, Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination is authored by Professor Nico Cloete, Director of CHET, HERANA project manager and researcher Tracy Bailey, and Peter Maassen, a professor of higher education at the University of Oslo.
The research focused on universities and economic development in eight African countries. Higher education stakeholders were surveyed, and eight universities studied: Botswana, Ghana, Nairobi (Kenya), Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Makerere (Uganda) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan (South Africa).
The study proposed that for universities to sustainably contribute to development, three inter-related factors are critical - a 'pact' among major actors about the role of universities in development; a strong 'academic core' in universities; and coordination of and connectedness between the policies and activities of governments, universities and external groups.
'Coordination' referred to structured forms of interaction, mainly between government and institutions. At the national level, the study looked at the role of the ministry responsible for higher education, steering and funding. At the university level, it explored structures to implement strategic plans, incentives, teaching and research programmes that link to economic development, and funding support for research.
The concept of 'connectedness' was used to depict loose forms of interaction such as links and networking between universities and external groups including business, donors and communities. The study also explored the extent to which university development projects were connected to external groups in ways that promoted development and strengthened or weakened the 'academic core'.
Mauritius rated the highest at both the national and institutional levels in coordination of knowledge policies and activities. "The two countries that scored highest on knowledge policies - Mauritius and Kenya - also have the highest rating for coordinating policies and building agreement at the national level. To this list is added South Africa," the authors write.
The research found that forums were the most common structure for promoting coordination and consensus-building. But interviews "suggested that these are seldom more than talk shops; follow-up to agreements is weak and there are few attempts at monitoring progress and the implementation of decisions.
"Even in countries such as South Africa, where there are stronger forms of coordination such as ministerial clusters, the same lack of follow-through occurs. In other cases, the efficacy of the structure is undermined by different departments sending officials of different ranks to meetings, leading to a gradual loss of confidence in the structure.
"The exception is Mauritius, where considerable effort is being made with multiple structures and networks to broaden agreement and buy-in," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.
There have been attempts at coordination through 'super-ministries', such as in Mauritius and Kenya. A "perpetual problem", which also occurs in many international systems, is lack of cooperation between departments of education and science and technology, "but merging them does not seem to guarantee positive policy coordination either", they write.
Five of the eight African countries - Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya - had some form of platform for linking universities to government, but these did not necessarily result in effective coordination.
The research found strong connections between government and university leaders, but they were more political than productive. Indeed, they could be too close "because we encountered the constant refrain of policy instability, meaning that when there is a political leadership change in government, it affects both government departments and the university".
In response to weak ministries, and following international best practice, all the countries have established higher or tertiary education councils more distant from ministerial influence.
"These structures are better placed and resourced than traditional ministries to play a coordinating role," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen. The relatively new institutions are all going through some form of 'role redefinition'. But while most were started as quality assurance or certification bodies, "they are increasingly assuming a diversity of roles".
The research found that South Africa was the only country with steering capacity, a stable funding regime and a sustainable ratio of sources of income. But it did not have a vision of the role of higher education in development, and so steering was "mainly based on dealing with issues internal to the higher education system". Uganda and Mozambique had the most serious national-level capacity problems.
"In a number of countries the government subsidy system is not only unstable, it also discourages enterprising behaviour through a system that 'penalises' institutions for raising third-stream income by subtracting the amounts raised from the next year's government subsidy," the authors write.
At the institutional level, only Mauritius had structures and appointments linking the institution's activities to economic development. It "also has a well-established focus on work-based learning, and a strong focus on economic development in its research and innovation clusters". South Africa's NMMU scored high on the implementation ratings.
In the other universities, evidence of structures, appointments or funding for activities linked to economic development was only found in "pockets". And while many universities had some form of incentive for academics to engage in research, "none incentivised academics to engage in (economic) development-related research or teaching per se".
University connectedness to external stakeholders
Most of the universities talked about the importance of engaging with external stakeholders in their plans or research policies, and in all there was engagement through teaching, research, consultancy and other forms of 'service' activities from which a wide range of external stakeholders benefited.
There was evidence of links with business and industry in all eight universities, but it was usually at the unit not the institutional level. Aside from at NMMU and Mauritius, there was almost no university engagement in research and development for industry.
"To a large extent this is because the industrial sector in most of these countries is under-developed, and because there is very limited private sector R&D - where global companies do have operations in African countries, their R&D is usually undertaken elsewhere."
There were two types of interaction with the private sector. First, in education and training there were examples of using private sector people to help with curricula design and revision, work placements and customised training programmes. Second, and most prevalent, was business development and support for small and medium-sized enterprises.
"Only two of the universities - Nairobi and Mauritius - had units dedicated to coordinating the activities with external stakeholders," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.
Development aid to higher education in Africa has swelled in the past decade. A CHET study estimated that some US$1 billion was donated to higher education in Africa from 2000 to 2005. The issue is thus not only about more aid but how to spend it more effectively.
That study found "widely divergent approaches to development aid with no generally accepted 'development model' linking a set of key drivers for development". This is probably owing to the particularity of the national interests of the participating countries. But there is also no agreement in Africa on the role of higher education in development aid.
"Some interviewees said not all donor agencies take government priorities into account, and others spoke about tensions between responding to the agendas of foreign donors in order to secure funding, and addressing local needs. Some commented on lack of clarity about and changes in what donors want to fund," the authors write.
"Coordination of agendas and projects was a major problem, along with the administrative effort required to account to multiple donors. There was little coordination between donors in terms of funding areas and activities."
Only two universities had strong donor coordination structures, Dar es Salaam and Eduardo Mondlane. The Mozambican university received the largest proportion of donor aid among the universities but, the authors point out, it had the weakest doctoral enrolments.
This was "partly because many doctoral candidates study overseas and, more importantly, because there was no coordinated triangle of government, university and donor support. Mozambique's government 'outsourced' research and PhD training to donors and was mainly funding undergraduate teaching."
Connecting development activities to the academic core
The study argues that a key issue for the relationship between higher education and economic development is to establish a productive relationship between knowledge and connectedness.
If there is overemphasis on the knowledge activities of teaching and research, the university becomes an 'ivory tower'. But "an overemphasis on connecting to development activities weakens the academic core and the university has little new or relevant knowledge to offer in the exchange relationship." The challenge is to balance this tension.
Leaders at the eight African universities each identified five to 10 projects or centres with an economic development or poverty reduction focus. Information was gathered on 44 initiatives ranging from long-term research to consultancies, training and small business support, and one from each university was analysed.
The projects fell into three groups, write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.
The first included projects or centres that were strongly connected to national or local priorities, had more than one funding source, and in some cases had a connection to an implementation agency.
"At the same time, they were strengthening the academic core through training postgraduate students, being part of international academic networks, and publishing in peer-reviewed journals and books." These projects were world-class.
A second group of projects or centres was connected to external stakeholders in some respects and to some extent helped to strengthen the academic core, "but were not strong on either". The third group was often well-connected to external stakeholders via funding or implementation agencies, "but were largely disconnected from the academic core".
The study reached the following conclusions regarding the coordination of and connectedness between the policies and activities of governments, universities and external groups:
* There are considerable coordination activities at the national level in most African countries, ranging from forums to clusters and the reorganisation of ministries. But this is mostly weak or 'symbolic' coordination.
* One of the weakest aspects of linking higher education to economic development is implementation: most ministries do not have steering instruments or mechanisms. Some ministries even discourage universities from generating third-stream income.
* There are tight networks between government officials and university leaders, but they are orientated towards political connections.
* Tertiary or higher education councils have been established, partially to compensate for weak ministries. They could become key players in monitoring the coordination and implementation of knowledge policies.
* Every university has at least one development-related structure and special programme. But these are often driven by individuals rather than being institutionalised, and implementation efforts need to be more connected.
* Despite extolling the importance of research related to development, few institutions devote special funds to this or provide incentives beyond academic promotion.
* While there is evidence of connectedness between the universities and the private sector, this generally involves units or centres rather than institutional-level partnerships.
* The coordination of agendas and projects with donors is a major problem, along with the administrative effort required for accounting to multiple donors. There was a perception of decreasing donor interest and lack of clarity about what donors want to fund.
* Many projects or centres strongly connected to development reflect national priorities, have more than one funding source and may have a connection to an implementation agency. But only some strengthen the 'academic core' of universities.
* At all of the universities there are exemplary development projects or centres, but some are too dependent on exceptional individuals. The challenge is to expand these world-class activities.
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