Economic development is a commonly touted overarching strategy by policy-makers and, although it is a laudable goal, it is frequently mired in political rhetoric. Economic development includes all activities that improve people's well-being, from increasing jobs and income to capacity-building investments in education, research and private capital. In short, it is a multi-faceted, long-term concept that is often confused with the much more restricted definition of economic growth, which refers to the sustained increase in jobs, income and total economic activity in a state or region.
Economic development can include growth objectives, but also refers to fundamental and sustainable increases in the productivity of individuals and institutions, thereby increasing the economic well-being for all individuals (Coupal and Taylor 1999: 1).
The question that the HERANA publication aims to address is: What is the role of universities in contributing to economic development in Africa? This is a worthwhile research question in the African context given that the enormous economic potential of the continent is marred by widespread unemployment, poverty, disease and environmental degradation.
A groundbreaking comparative analysis
The HERANA publication sets out to analyse the role of eight African universities in economic development by focusing on three interrelated factors, namely: the nature of the pact between universities, political authorities and society at large; the quality and strength of selected universities' academic core; and the extent to which the universities' development projects are connected to development priorities while also strengthening the academic core.
The study provides a groundbreaking comparative analysis of how African universities are currently performing against a set of input and output indicators and how each of these universities can better position themselves to effectively contribute to improving economic competitiveness in their countries through their core role of knowledge generation.
In so doing, the study contributes to developing higher education theory in a hypothetico-deductive manner through an assessment of each university's development interventions and how these contribute to the quality and strength of the academic core.
The findings of the study can be further interpreted, applied and contextualised by the participating universities and other researchers for the purposes of inductive theory-building.
As part of this iterative theory-building cycle, some of the fundamental questions that need to be raised in further contributing to a nuanced assessment of the role of universities in economic development include: For what purpose do universities generate knowledge and for whom? How can the contribution of universities to economic development be measured in ways other than research intensity, especially in an African context? Does institutional type influence the mix and range of activities, responsibilities (teaching, research and engagement) and outputs across different universities?
Depending on the answers to these questions, the role of universities in economic development will possibly take on different dimensions that extend beyond the parameters of the first phase of the HERANA study.
Difficulties in measuring the impacts of universities
There is a long-standing interest in understanding the economic impact of universities and the need to reward and encourage universities to enhance their interactions with business, industry and the public service in an effort to contribute to economic growth and competitiveness.
Despite this, measuring this impact in quantifiable ways is not a simple task and, although there has been some acknowledgement of the new roles universities play in economic development, metrics and indicators are lagging behind and often do not reflect the heterogeneous and multidimensional activities universities engage in at different spatial scales to contribute to economic development (Uyarra 2006).
The scope of the HERANA study does not include an evaluation of the impact of universities on development in their respective countries and regions. Furthermore, the indicators used to measure the performance of the eight African universities were limited by the availability of data and the ease with which comparable data could be collected in a cross-country study.
At present there is a limited set of indicators available to evaluate teaching and research activities, but less so in other areas such as the engagement function and aspects such as cultural development, sustainability etc. There is a need for a much better appreciation of the wide range of activities and impacts of universities since the current set of metrics is not sufficient to deal with the full extent of interactions between universities and their environment.
However, the HERANA study does provide a useful baseline through which it is possible to assess the extent to which the graduate and research outputs of the selected universities can be strengthened in an effort to enhance the contribution of higher education to the competitiveness of African countries.
The findings of the HERANA data analyses also provide a basis for the participating universities to enhance their institutional effectiveness by confirming strengths and pockets of excellence that need to be scaled up, as well as identifying areas for improvement and strategies to address these.
To optimise this opportunity, participating universities need to conduct ongoing institutional research of a quantitative and qualitative nature to assess trends and progress made since the HERANA study, to ensure that evidence-informed strategies are implemented in respect of enhancing the capacity of the universities to contribute meaningfully to economic development.
In this regard, it is probably necessary to assess the capacity of African universities to generate and interpret such institutional research and, where this is lacking, devise strategies to enhance this.
Scholarship of engagement
The methodology introduced by the HERANA study to assess the relationship between external connectedness and the academic core in selected development projects of the eight African universities is a pioneering approach. This has the potential to be applied more broadly as a tool to objectively evaluate the extent to which engagement activities are contributing to strengthening the academic core.
The application of the tool effectively profiles the need for university leadership to ensure that the development and engagement interventions embarked upon by academics are embedded in the core activities of teaching, learning and research and thereby enhance the capacity of the university to generate new knowledge and significant innovations through its linkages with external stakeholders such as industry, government and broader civil society.
This is reminiscent of Ernest Boyer's notion of the scholarship of engagement, which incorporates reciprocal practices of civic engagement into the production of knowledge. In the words of Boyer: "...the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems, and must reaffirm its historic commitment to what I call the scholarship of engagement" (Boyer 1996: 11).
The scholarship of engagement typically tends to describe a host of practices that cut across disciplinary boundaries and teaching, research and outreach functions in which scholars communicate to and work both for and with communities (Boyer 1996).
Engaged scholars are making the case that their practices constitute serious scholarship capable of meeting or even exceeding traditional academic standards. It is argued that, by working with communities in the processes of research, scholars can generate research questions, widen the field of potential data sources and test findings.
Engaged scholars share a common conviction that the service or outreach function of universities can be broadened to include research and deepened to provide a greater sense of intellectual rigour and of working collaboratively with the public.
This broader conceptualisation of scholarship thus embraces a stronger integration of faculty research and student learning into the life of communities outside the academy and requires not only communicating research findings to public audiences, but also collaboration with relevant external communities in the production of knowledge that cultivates a better understanding of innovative solutions to societal challenges (Barker 2004: 127).
Need for incentives and a 'pact'
The HERANA study correctly highlights the importance of a conducive incentive environment to encourage academic staff to direct their energies towards activities that articulate with broader development priorities while not detracting from strengthening the academic core.
The scholarly elements of service and engagement and their legitimate relationship to an integrated view of teaching and research have received little attention either in the academic environment or in the research literature on scholarship, but are seen as key to the creation of more distinctive and responsive higher education institutions.
The existing, narrowly-defined mould into which almost all universities attempt to cast themselves is not adequate to the expanding needs of our contemporary, knowledge-based society (Lynton & Elman 1987: 12).
It is in this regard that the HERANA conceptualisation of the 'pact' becomes critical in that national government policies need to be sufficiently sensitive to the need for mechanisms to enhance higher education diversity and differentiation by ensuring that funding frameworks do not unintentionally encourage institutional isomorphism and mission drift.
What is required, as part of the HERANA research dissemination strategy, is a research-informed dialogue with relevant national stakeholders such as government departments and higher education commissions or councils to more clearly articulate the unique role of universities in development and how this can be further enhanced by strengthening their knowledge-production capacity.
Finally, it needs to be asked of the various parties to the 'pact' how universities can best integrate and synergise their teaching, research and public service missions in a manner that will create and support the broad-based and active learning community that is best prepared to cope with the complex challenges confronting knowledge societies.
This will demand bold and visionary leadership at sectoral and institutional levels that can best be informed by the evidence emerging from studies such as those produced by HERANA.
* Professor Heather Nel is director of strategic and institutional planning at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.
Barker D (2004) The Scholarship of Engagement: A taxonomy of five emerging practices. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 9(2): 123-137
Boyer E (1996) The Scholarship of Engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach 1(1): 11-20
Coupal R & Taylor DT (1999) Measuring the Contribution of the University to the State's Economic Development: Definitions and strategies. Available on-line here
Lynton EA & Elman SE (1987) New Priorities for the University. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
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