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Stronger universities needed to support development

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing positive economic development, and there is increasing understanding of the important contributions universities have to make if African societies are to achieve the next stages of development.

So said Professor Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town, at a senimar on “Research and Development” held in Oslo earlier this month and convened by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and the Norwegian Research Council.

The conference was among efforts to support researchers in developing countries and to enhance knowledge-based development, and asked the basic question: Will more research lead to development and poverty reduction?

Cloete played an important role in the design of a new higher education policy in post-apartheid South Africa and currently leads the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – programme, which includes a research project in eight African countries on the importance of universities for development.

Key role

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen a decade of strong economic growth. The economic outlook in many African countries is in stark contrast to the crisis-stricken economies of Europe and North America.

Universities can play a key role in Africa's further economic development, but for the moment they are still too weak in many respects.

Many governments and stakeholders have until recently viewed higher education and research as a ‘luxury’ sector that does not need serious public investment.

But Cloete told the seminar there is growing realisation of the key role universities can play in the development of African knowledge economies. As this realisation takes root, HERANA is investigating central aspects of universities’ economic and democratic roles.

The research includes collecting empirical data in order to conduct comparative analyses of scientific publications, the production of masters and doctoral graduates, and other research outputs.

The knowledge produced can be regarded as an important first step in strengthening African universities.

Some factors weakening universities

In some areas, the situation is dire. Cloete described, for example, the production of doctoral students at major African universities as “close to collapse”.

The combination of a lack of resources and tempting offers from abroad to researchers is part of the explanation for universities' problems in this and other areas.

National research councils, according to Cloete, have limited funds to support research, and the process of applying for funds is often very bureaucratic. “It is so exhausting to seek research funding that academics often turn to consultancy work,” he told http://forskning.no.

It is easier for academics to accept consultancy projects outside the university than to apply for research funding internally.

In many cases these are consultancy projects for international donor agencies. Where donor funding is granted, it is usually in the form of short-term contracts with no obligation or opportunity for scientific publishing.

In this way Western aid can actually weaken the core university activities of conducting research and offering high quality study programmes.

The fact that many university staff take on extracurricular teaching assignments at other – usually private – institutions to supplement their incomes, also contributes to the weakening of the academic core in universities in Africa.

International research collaboration in which African academics are involved gives access to research networks and can result in co-authored academic publications. However, African scientists are often only marginally involved in the design of joint research projects.

The result is the absorption of academics’ time without developing sustainable research capacity in universities.

Large, multinational companies conduct only a very small proportion of their own research and development in Africa. Even companies that make huge profits in Africa seldom support research in African universities.

Many small and medium-sized companies need R&D for developing business ideas, but they lack the resources to fund such research.

Positive developments

However, Cloete indicated that there were positive developments. He said the African Union was proposing an African Research Council based in part on the model of the European Research Council.

This would enable researchers from all African countries to seek funding for their projects.

There has been great concern about the brain drain from the African continent, which has for decades been losing academics and professionals – up to 20,000 a year, according to the World Bank – to the West.

Strengthening African universities could be one way of stemming the loss of academics who leave in search of better working conditions and salaries.

Also, Cloete said, “Remember that many countries in Africa now have an economic growth rate of more than 5%. This means that there are many more jobs that require academic training than before.”

He referred to media reports of several African scholars traveling back to Africa. Institutions are growing stronger and there are more job opportunities.


Professor Peter Maassen, from the department of educational research at the University of Oslo, has collaborated with Cloete for several years, and is involved in one of the sub-projects of the HERANA programme.

He pointed out that several countries in Africa have discovered rich petroleum resources and stand on the verge of major revenues.

They can choose to go the way that oil-rich Nigeria and Angola have done and focus solely on the extraction of oil and gas. But these countries are characterised by great inequality and lack of development outside of the ‘oil economy’.

Or they can choose a different, broader development strategy in which research and higher education will play a major role.

“In countries such as Ghana and Mozambique, this situation offers an opportunity to aim at a comprehensive development plan, which is not only rooted in the oil sector,” said Maassen.

Oil-rich countries can expect higher state revenues, through direct and indirect taxes, which will enable the funding and implementation of comprehensive development strategies.

“However, the African countries themselves, their politicians and other stakeholders including researchers and university representatives, must make those development choices.

“We must try to avoid replicating the typical scenario where we [the North] tell countries and universities in Africa how to develop. This cannot be the goal of development cooperation in the 21st century.”

* This article by Asle Rønning was first published by www.forskning.no. It is reproduced with permission.
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