The diminishing quality and declining relevance of many African universities amount to a crisis, and present a major challenge regarding what can be done nationally and internationally to repair the damage. Three years ago HERANA (Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa) took on this challenge, by designing and applying a research programme that examines the relationship between universities and economic development.
Its chosen task has been to place African development in the context of a modern changing world, and build evidence on how universities can help to produce it. A central aspect of the challenge is to link what universities do to the needs of changing societies, policy-makers and employers.
Results of this research programme have recently emerged in well-designed publications that present the preliminary research findings in synthesised form. They summarise the data and derive main policy conclusions from chosen research themes.
The publications are eloquent, with clear writing and illustrations, leaving detailed analysis available for consultation in separate full versions.
They sharpen our understanding of the relationship between universities and governments in several distinctive ways. They provide significant pieces of new knowledge on specified development themes; necessary new steps in the research process itself; obstacles to the policy linkage task; and subjects for further research attention.
Research themes and outcomes
Each of the initial set of publications conveys clear policy implications regarding different aspects of the relationship between higher education and development. Other publications have also been produced, but four are mentioned here.
Universities and Economic Development in Africa; Pact, academic core and coordination
Perhaps the most important overview synthesis is the one titled Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination. It explores the perceived connections in the relationship between the format and practice of eight African universities, and the state of economic development in their countries and beyond.
In particular it reveals the fragile institutional qualities and lack of cohesion among the selected universities outside South Africa. While their roles turn out to be very different, the synthesis reveals the extent to which their diverse deficiencies derive from limited knowledge production and application.
The synthesis draws out some of the urgent reform tasks required by African nations and universities to reverse the trend, for example:
Linking Higher Education and Economic Development: Implications for Africa from three successful systems
The second publication examines the development-related practices of three OECD-country case studies, and draws out common themes that appear to have important implications for Africa. The main theme is the need for academic and policy acceptance of a knowledge economy.
Potentially relevant professional practices, drawn from the OECD country and institutional experiences, are suggested. They include:
The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground?
The third publication is based on the recognition that much recent political practice in Africa has been a threat to economic development and, in some countries, to higher education itself. It seeks to establish the extent of the relationship between university conditions and democratic beliefs and practice among students and citizens.
Among other things it reveals that encouraging and facilitating student leadership, in various forms of on-campus political activity in a range of student organisations, is one of the promising ways in which African universities can act as training grounds for democratic citizenship. This is an important overview conclusion which, as the study makes clear, requires much further investigation.
Performance Indicators: South African higher education 2000-2008
This study uses established indicators to provide performance profiles of South Africa's 23 public universities. It reflects CHET'S recognition of the need for empirically based planning and decision-making in higher education policy.
CHET has created an online data access system that allows universities to assess and compare their performance based on common indicators. It amounts to a national case for the provision of persuasive evidence - on enrolments, finance, research outputs etc. - that can guide management and governance, in relation to developmental and other goals. It illustrates a desirable policy device for other higher education systems across the continent.
The overriding contribution of the four publications is that they confirm the relevance of research findings to developmental policy.
That there is a close relationship between university knowledge production and economic development is certain. Through education, training and research, universities can impart skills and knowledge that enable countries to raise their economic growth rates, and increase public participation in development.
Identifying practical institutional steps to strengthen the relationship remains a challenge.
Workable steps in the research process
The new forms of required developmental knowledge, revealed in the publications, constitute the essence of the HERANA programme. An important associated contribution is the illustration of the practical university processes through which this knowledge can be sought and applied.
Universities need to know how they can best organise themselves to provide the skills which are required for high-quality, policy-relevant research. Improving the research process, through capacity-building and policy implications, is a central step towards improved understanding of the measures that can be used for strengthening the relationship between universities and development.
Functioning amid several of Africa's outstanding universities, HERANA and CHET are able to draw on some exceptional South African experience in university quality and research. However, the declared task is to get beyond the particular state of South Africa, not simply sharing its knowledge but taking on board the diverse experience of the broader network of universities across the continent and producing regionally applicable strategies and frameworks.
This is an economically and socially essential goal, but poses a challenge, because of the range of quality deficiencies in the region - economic, cultural, political and technological - where institutional cohesion is fragile and generalisation is difficult.
A further challenge to the regional network, although not mentioned in the publications, is the possibility of academic tensions stemming from the other nations' concern about the potential academic dominance of South Africa. HERANA's willingness to share quality research and university training, plus its attempt to include regional experience, seems to be a positive network step to resolve national concerns.
Beyond local and national anxieties, another reason why networks can appear unbalanced is because project selection often derives from different external donor choices, rather than local recipient preferences. In this regard the HERANA project again seems to be appropriately seeking collaborative donor support to the programme.
As is evident from the items mentioned, HERANA recognises the network challenge, dramatised by globalisation, the knowledge economy and historical tensions. However, strengthening the collective role, as a distinctive Africa-wide unit, needs closer attention and more specific action than has occurred so far, or is evident in the publications.
It is particularly important to demonstrate that the benefit flow is not entirely one way out of South Africa but that there are mutual benefits in both directions, to and from South Africa and across the network countries.
The publications identify several institutional reforms required to respond to these challenges. Among these are:
Subjects for further research attention
In its second phase HERANA should aim to respond to some of the urgent Africa-wide needs that remain. These include attention and action relating to networks, information, capacity-building, national higher education commissions, academic incentive systems, knowledge connectivity models and the feasibility of an African Research Council.
The current importance and urgency of these themes are recognised, but as revealed in the publications, nations and regions have yet to come up with collective strategic policies that can create the network linkage between research and policy articulation, outlets and implementation.
The central challenge is how national universities can improve their research quality, efficiency, relevance and output, and expedite the process by taking on the offerings and benefits of globalisation, technological change and regional collaboration.
The significant HERANA messages reveal the policy relevance of good research. Given the quality of this first phase, one can anticipate further provision of relevant knowledge and, hopefully, its extended adoption by policy-makers.
* David Court is a member of Kenya's Commission of Higher Education. He was formerly a teacher and researcher in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, was a long-time East African representative of the Rockefeller Foundation and had a five-year secondment on higher education to the World Bank.
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