What started as an initiative to understand the standardised but diverse nature of South African higher education, spread its tentacles to embrace eight other countries in Africa. Its format was broadened in scope to encompass higher education and knowledge for development. Specific attention was paid to the knowledge-based economy, which is increasingly defining globalisation and country competitiveness.
The attendant research, which focused on higher education and development in the African context, spawned a publication on Universities and Economic Development in Africa.
The outputs of this research extend beyond the publication to highlight key areas of relevance to the higher education discourse in Africa. Application of the findings include not only higher education institutions participating in the study but also higher education practitioners, researchers and national governments across the region.
Where previously the knowledge development agenda was driven by researchers, this report establishes a change in communication tack through its attempt to attempt to 'de-abstract' knowledge.
The report highlights knowledge as intellectual capital; therefore a tradable commodity that has to be cultivated and produced. Presented in such a manner and language, the message it generates will be understood by politicians and policy-makers.
In this light, it brings out the ownership perspective of the knowledge development agenda at the institutional and national levels. Indeed, it is an evidence-based argument, what can be termed a 'valid excuse' to draw higher education back into the African national development agenda. It brings to the fore the reality that we are living in a global environment.
Applications at the national level
At the national level, findings of the higher education and development research embodied in the Universities and Economic Development in Africa report create an interface between the university and national development agendas.
At the same time, it establishes an assurance for coexistence between government and institutions; contrary to the norm, it highlights that institutional autonomy is not eroded but strengthened by a 'pact' that links government, universities and other socio-economic actors.
I see this report as a tool that could be used to sensitise both governments and institutions, and be a catalyst to redefine the role of government from the current 'policing'-regulatory one to a more meaningful and valuable partnership.
The partnership would be beneficial in the sense that it enables both government and institutions to reflect on current policies and practices; how they have impacted on the academic core of the university, and the contribution of universities to economic development.
This will enable us to move beyond the nicely tailored documents that have been highlighted by the report to a position where we 'walk the talk'. The research findings are therefore an instrument to lobby for research and development resources, with a provision for linkage to economic development as well as a mechanism that will see governments create incentives for universities to engage in research and development.
The implication here is a need for commitments by governments to additional support for higher education in general; as the flagship universities of African countries focus on research and development, and postgraduate study particularly at doctoral level, resources are channelled into other institutions to bridge the gap and maintain higher education participation especially in science and technology.
Structurally, the report implies the establishment of structures that will facilitate the fit within knowledge-based economies at institutional and national levels. This may extend to legislation in some countries.
It also implies a need to develop mechanisms that differentiate national flagship universities from the satellite campuses that have cropped up in the region, as universities from the West and Asia attempt to define part of their internationalisation strategies.
Applications at the institutional level
At institutional level, therefore, the report is an important tool for making a case for the reorientation of national flagship universities from undergraduate to research-focused institutions.
Of specific significance to universities is the use of academic core indicators to redefine academic performance and the link to national development. This brings out not only a meaningful discernment of performance indicators but also the realisation that quality, which has hitherto dominated performance measurement, is not an end in itself.
Further still, the indicators provide a platform for internal performance ratings and the creation of the culture of evidence-based decision-making.
From the research and projects perspective, the report generates the impetus for the evaluation of key projects within universities; projects that undermine the academic core as well as those that enhance it and their contribution to knowledge-based economies.
It creates an awareness of the need to aggressively increase the number of projects in the university, through not only re-evaluation of the incentive scheme for academics, but also establishing research projects as a performance indicator at both the institutional and national levels.
This generates a model that stratifies units within institutions; a critical evaluation of the functionality of the small unit in influencing knowledge production and transfers. It also provides consciousness in our curriculum review and development processes for the reorientation towards disciplines and practices that support the knowledge economy, where the teaching component is the focus.
Participation in the programme enhances the capacity for institutional research and awareness. The broad spectrum of performance indicators used creates an opportunity for internal self-assessment. This is essential information in the setting of targets and the move towards attaining institutional goals and objectives, plus the broader discourse on new performance management.
As a comparative study, Universities and Economic Development in Africa highlights the possibility of a collective redefinition of the university in Africa. It establishes comparable evidence that could be used as part of the building blocks for the initiation of a regional standards schema.
It also provides the momentum for a regional development agenda that could bring together national ministries of education and academicians. Not to mention a rich information base that is expected to enhance interest in research on higher education
Nonetheless, there is a need to market and widely disseminate the report in order to create a sense of ownership both at the institutional and the national levels. This will bridge the gap between the research and the target audience.
* Professor Florence Nakayiwa-Mayega is director of planning at Makerere University in Uganda.
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