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AFRICA: Behind the scenes of the HERANA research

On 19 August 2011, the book Universities and Economic Development in Africa was launched in Cape Town. The publication documents the findings and analysis of a ground-breaking and innovative research project that explored the complex factors and relationships that impact on a university's capacity to make a sustainable contribution to development. The findings have also been disseminated in an array of other forms and forums including reports, web pages, conference papers, seminars and articles in University World News.

What none of these project outputs convey is exactly what went into producing this almost 200-page book. They do not reveal that the focused and well-worded text of the book is the result of four years of work, involving dozens of people from 12 countries on four continents, from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and positions within governments and academia.

Neither do they take account of the debates, development of ideas and shifts in thinking within the research team; nor the small miracles, the hard-earned milestones and the challenges encountered along the way.

This is that account.

Preparing the HERANA project

Preparations for the project began in earnest in the second half of 2007 at a meeting at a venue outside Cape Town in September, as part of the launch of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA).

Following this meeting, the initial project conceptualisation was undertaken by Professor Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education (CHET) in Cape Town, Professor Peter Maassen of the University of Oslo in Norway, and CHET consultant Dr Pundy Pillay.

Maassen and Pillay developed research proposals for the macro (national) and meso-micro (university) dimensions of the project, respectively. They also provided contextual, conceptual and theoretical ideas to guide the various strands of the project.

Maassen laid the foundation for what was later to become a very lengthy and somewhat convoluted analytical framework. Romulo Pinheiro also contributed some analytical ideas to the early framework document, based on his PhD work at the University of Oslo at the time.

Pillay undertook a review of the international literature on the relationship between higher education and economic development.

The HERANA research work

The first major piece of empirical work began in 2008. Pillay, together with some other members of the research team, visited three OECD countries - Finland, South Korea and North Carolina in the US - between March and September 2008. These three systems have successfully linked higher education to their economic development strategies and initiatives and Pillay undertook detailed case studies of each.

Each of the draft case studies was reviewed by an expert in the field in each of the three countries. The case studies and the synthesis commentary were then published in the book Linking Higher Education and Economic Development: Implications for Africa from three successful systems.

With the draft analytical framework, the international review of the literature, and the case studies of three OECD systems in the bag, we could now begin the detailed planning for our site visits to the eight African countries selected for the study. These were Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

The logistical preparations for the African site visits also took place during 2008.

We began by sending letters to the vice-chancellors of eight selected 'flagship' universities - Botswana, Ghana, Nairobi in Kenya, Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan in South Africa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Makerere in Uganda - informing them of the project, requesting permission to include their university in the study, and asking them to identify a senior institutional contact with whom we could work.

Lucky for us, this part of the process went smoothly. We found the universities to be very willing to participate in the study and the institutional leaders gave us their full cooperation. The national authorities that we contacted were equally willing to participate.

We began to engage the university contacts with requests for background information on the university, to schedule interviews and, with institutional leaders, to identify five to 10 projects that had an economic development or poverty reduction focus that we could include in the sample.

We also had to respond to requests for information, further clarification and even negotiation in order to access both the people and sources of information we needed for our research. The gate-keeping that one has to deal with in a project of this size and scope is considerable.

Drawing on a vast amount of desk research, as well as information provided by the institutional contacts and members of the research team (Pundy Pillay, Charles Sheppard and Ian Bunting), I compiled the eight site visit booklets that were distributed to the research teams as preparation for the fieldwork.

These booklets contained the interview schedules, global competitiveness indicators, development indicators, and detailed overviews of the higher education systems and of the universities included in the samples.

And of course, while all of this was going on Angela Mias, the CHET administrator, and a travel agent were involved in the complex and no doubt arduous task of booking flights, airport transfers, hotels and taxis for the research team visits that were scheduled to start in early 2009.

In short, 2008 was a busy year for the HERANA team.

Well, that's what we thought until we got to 2009.

The site visits took place between February and June. That involved, among other things:

  • Eight countries and eight universities.
  • Interviews with 134 university leaders, senior academics and project leaders, and 30 national stakeholders in government and higher education councils or commissions.
  • Undertaken by 15 researchers from fields such as higher education studies, development economics, sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science.
  • Assisted by 19 university contact people and other support staff.
  • Researcher debriefing sessions after every round of fieldwork, and ongoing work on the analytical framework involving many members of the research team.
  • Work-in-progress presentations at seminars with national and university stakeholders in six of the eight African countries and elsewhere, and at conferences.

    It goes without saying that the five months' of travelling to do the site visits was an intense and busy period, and most certainly not without its challenges.

    We heard some hair-raising tales from the people responsible for logistics about last-minute visas, complicated and ever-changing flight bookings, coordinating taxis for the research team for interviews taking place in different parts of campus and sometimes even the city, and dealing with hotel receptionists and management.

    There were, of course, some 'learning opportunities' from a 'site visit management' point of view. Trying to arrange and coordinate a hectic and demanding interview schedule for a bunch of professors is not unlike trying to herd cats.

    And there were nightmare moments that required resourcefulness, considerable patience and a certain amount of charm; for instance, arriving one day ahead of the rest of the research team in one of the countries to discover that only one interview had been scheduled (which was obviously contrary to what I had been told prior to my arrival).

    I set up a make-shift office (or rather a 'panic station') in the office of a university leader's secretary and was, on average over the two days, about 1.5 hours ahead of the research team in terms of scheduling and confirming interviews.

    Running parallel to our learning about higher education, universities and development in Africa, we also received an education of a different kind - about African cuisine (one of my favourites was being served an entire octopus and four baked potatoes in a restaurant in Maputo), culture, politics and - for better or worse - about each other. We also had a lot of fun.

    Writing the reports

    Once the site visits were completed, we began the long and arduous task of writing the eight country-and-university case study reports, which continued into 2010. Originally these were meant to be 'fieldwork notes'.

    We soon realised that as we had so much rich data, and the analysis was going to be very challenging and complicated, we should develop full-blown case studies. More than 100 pages each, and I don't think it is an overstatement to say that writing those case studies almost killed us.

    Pillay and I wrote the bulk of the case studies while Cloete worked on the analysis and the key findings.

    However, many other people contributed to their development as well, including Ian Bunting, a CHET consultant, and Charles Sheppard of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, who put together the academic core data; Gerald Ouma of the University of the Western Cape, who provided financial data for the eight universities; Nelius Boshoff of the University of Stellenbosch, who provided research output data; and Monique Ritter, a CHET consultant, who liaised with all the project leaders to check the accuracy of our project data and to fill in gaps.

    The draft case study reports were sent to the vice-chancellors of the eight universities, the institutional contacts and all the project leaders with a request for feedback. We also hosted a seminar in Franschhoek in August 2010, to which one or more representatives from each of the eight universities and countries were invited, and they provided detailed feedback on the draft reports.

    Cloete and I then started writing the synthesis report, which went through numerous drafts and which, not for the first time, required the further refinement of our analytical framework. Karen MacGregor from University World News came to our rescue and edited the synthesis and wrote its executive summary because, by that stage, we were exhausted and written out.

    The refinements to the analytical framework, as well as the feedback provided by the institutional representatives, meant that we had to revisit the eight case study reports. At this point, we handed everything over to Monique Ritter and Stefanie Swanepoel, who were responsible for data-checking and editing, respectively.

    There is one very important and integral member of this project team who I have not mentioned yet, but who has been a kind of publication and presentation glue the whole way through, and that is Francois van Schalkwyk and his team at Compress. Francois is our publisher and manages the CHET website and the HERANA Gateway.

    It is thus with no small sense of achievement - and relief - that we close the chapter on four years of work; vast swathes of qualitative and quantitative data; hours, days and months of intellectual discussion and debate, analysis and writing; and numerous outputs; and now turn our attention to HERANA Phase 2.

    * Tracy Bailey is a higher education researcher and the project manager of HERANA.
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