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Managing contradictory functions in African flagship universities

The challenge for higher education systems in Africa is not to have universities as societal transformers, or to isolate universities from society into secluded laboratories or the boardrooms of multinational firms, but to develop institutions that are solid and dynamic enough to withstand tensions that will trigger the simultaneous performance of seemingly contradictory functions.

Following Manuel Castells (1993) [1], Cloete and Maassen (2015) [2] summarised the four core functions of universities as: producing values and social legitimation; selecting the dominant elites; training the labour force; and producing scientific knowledge and supporting its application in society.

In terms of the different functions of universities, Castells (1993) observed that “because universities are social systems and historically produced institutions”, they undertake all of the four functions simultaneously within the same structure – although with different emphases at different historical moments.

Castells concludes that the “critical element in the structure and dynamics of university systems is to combine and make compatible seemingly contradictory functions”.

To illustrate these possible ‘contradictions’, three case studies were chosen from a group of eight universities that are part of the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – group of universities.

The eight are the universities of Botswana, Cape Town, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, Mauritius and Nairobi in Kenya.

The University of Mauritius was selected because it is located in the only African country studied that had a pact about the role of higher education and explicit knowledge economy policies.

The universities of Nairobi and Makerere were included because they are both large, well-known African universities that have intentions and policies to become research-led, but are grappling with trading off enrolment expansion with a focus on doctoral training and research, albeit with somewhat different outcomes.

The data referred to below comes from chapters three, four and 12 of the new book by Nico Cloete, Peter Maassen and Tracy Bailey (2015), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education [2].


Mauritius is the only country in the HERANA group that has a very explicit role for higher education in development, as articulated in national policy documents such as “Developing Mauritius into a Knowledge Hub and a Centre of Higher Learning”, and is currently rated the most competitive economy in Africa by the World Economic Forum.

However, the assessment of the University of Mauritius as a flagship institution showed that it met only three of 13 flagship targets – those relating to its proportion of students in science, engineering and technology (SET), and to its throughput rates of masters and doctoral graduates.

Furthermore, the institution exhibited a number of weaknesses in relation to knowledge production; for instance:

  • Over the five-year period 2007-11, total enrolments grew by 26%, while enrolments at the masters level increased slowly (12%) and growth at the doctoral level was stagnant – 0% over the period.
  • The proportion of headcount undergraduate students had remained around 90% of total student numbers for the period. The ratio of masters-to-doctoral enrolments increased from 15:1 to 19:1, meaning that the throughput from masters to doctorates declined and that the ratio is much higher than the target of 5:1.
  • The total number of tenured academic staff increased by 43%, and the total number of academics with PhD degrees grew impressively by 33% between 2007 and 2011. But problematic is that in terms of Web of Science publication outputs, Mauritius increased by 222% between 2001 and 2013, while over the same period Makerere had increased by 539% and Eduardo Mondlane by 307%. The outputs per academic staff member in terms of research publications and doctoral graduates at the University of Mauritius were low in comparison to the other HERANA institutions.

In summary, the assessment of the University of Mauritius shows that despite Mauritius being the only country in the HERANA project that had a pact of policies and strategies to be a leader in the knowledge economy, without a policy of differentiation in the higher education system, the University of Mauritius has not been able to make a trade-off between being a largely undergraduate teaching institution and a research-led flagship university.

In other words, the contradictory functions of training for the labour market and producing (and applying) scientific knowledge have not been managed in a way that allows the university to assume a role as a producer of new knowledge in the knowledge hub.


The University of Nairobi has started a debate about becoming a research university and has taken some steps towards this goal – such as establishing an office for a deputy vice-chancellor for research, appointing a director of research, increasing research funding, introducing recognition and incentives for outstanding researchers, and strengthening support for postgraduate research.

The assessment of the University of Nairobi as a flagship university shows that by 2011 the university met only two of the 13 flagship targets: a favourable ratio of full-time equivalent students-to-academic-staff in SET programmes, and its throughput rate of doctoral graduates.

The assessment also highlights the areas in which the university appears to be facing serious challenges, which include the following:

  • Nairobi had substantial increases in masters students (92%) between 2007 and 2011 and in doctoral enrolments (311%). But despite this increase, the percentage of doctoral enrolments to total enrolments was only 0.3% compared to 4% at the University of Cape Town.
  • The ratio of masters-to-doctoral enrolments was 46:1 in 2011, compared to the target ratio of 5:1. Thus, a disproportionately large number of masters degrees were ‘terminal’, meaning that students did not progress to the doctoral level.
  • In contrast to this growth, the total number of permanent academic staff only grew 7% and the total of academic staff with PhD degrees increased only slightly (9%). This means that basically the same staff complement had to deal with a massive increase of 47% in masters and doctoral students.
  • The 2013 update of academic publication output on the Web of Science shows that Nairobi increased by 73% from 2001 to 2013. But this is the lowest increase for all the HERANA institutions: by contrast, Makerere increased by 539%, Eduardo Mondlane by 307% and Ghana by 229%.

In summary, Nairobi is an interesting example of a university that is trying to resolve the tensions of enrolment expansion (earning more income) and developing a stronger research postgraduate function, but without a supporting government policy framework.

However, from the research and doctoral output figures it is clear that the staff complement cannot cope with the contradictory pressures.


Makerere’s new strategic plan has three pillars: becoming a research-led university, transitioning from a teacher-centred to a learner-centred institution, and making a paradigm shift from outreach to knowledge transfer.

In order to move towards a research-led institution, Makerere instituted a number of strategies and structures, including the establishment of a directorate of research and graduate training, strengthening institutional planning, developing a framework for research management, and developing a research monitoring framework.

The assessment of Makerere shows that the institution met four of the 13 flagship targets. These relate to its favourable ratio of full-time equivalent students-to-academic staff in SET programmes, as well as the throughput rate of total graduates, SET graduates and masters graduates.

The assessment also showed that over the period 2007-11, Makerere had faced eight specific challenges, including the following:

  • The proportions of masters-plus-doctoral students and of doctoral students were below the flagship targets and, in the case of masters-plus-doctoral enrolments, below the average for the eight flagship universities.
  • Its performance fell below the flagship target and the average for the eight flagship universities in the provision of senior academics and of academics with PhD degrees.
  • Other weaknesses which resulted in scores below the flagship target and the flagship averages were its student-to-staff ratio in programmes other than SET; its throughput of doctoral graduates; and its outputs per academic of research publications and of doctoral graduates.
  • Of particular concern for Makerere’s ambition to become a research university is that it has remained a predominantly undergraduate university: in 2009, 91% of the student body was at the undergraduate level and this proportion had only dropped to 90% by 2011 – compared, for instance, to 68% at the University of Cape Town.
  • Nevertheless, between 2007 and 2011, masters enrolments grew by 123%, while doctoral enrolments grew phenomenally from 32 to 563 (1,659%). Even more impressive is the 3:1 ratio of masters-to-doctoral enrolments, which is the same as Cape Town. From this we can conclude that the institution is managing growth at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, much more so than the University of Nairobi. But, not dissimilar to Nairobi, the full-time staff complement grew much more slowly, by only 3% between 2007 and 2011, as did the percentage of academics with PhD degrees (3%).
  • The updated Web of Science review shows that Makerere’s publication output went from 84 in 2001 to 460 in 2013, an increase of 539%, which is substantially the highest of all eight HERANA institutions. Of particular relevance is the post-2008 period (of the new research strategy) during which publications increased by 90.8%. This is an average annual growth of 13.8% – in contrast to the University of Cape Town’s average annual growth of 7.7%. But the publication totals are still low relative to the number of academic staff.

While Makerere’s overall research outputs are low in international terms, the improvements in doctoral enrolments and graduation, and in research productivity, do represent remarkable increases from the low starting base.

These improvements also show that institutions with determined strategies and structural changes – such as capping undergraduate growth and increasing doctoral enrolments while curbing masters-level growth – can bring about change, even in adverse conditions.

However, there are national factors (for example, the lack of a coherent research policy framework) and institutional factors (for example, the incentives for teaching privately sponsored students) that mitigate against strengthening an institutional research culture.


In conclusion, three key points can be extracted from problems faced by these ‘illustrative’ universities in managing contradictory functions.

Firstly, in terms of awareness and policies, and some structural changes, all three are committed to strengthening the knowledge production function.

Secondly, what Mauritius shows is that even with policies regarding the role of the university in the knowledge economy, if there is not a deliberate commitment to differentiation at both the national and institutional levels, the functions of undergraduate training will continue to dominate.

Thirdly, despite strong institutional commitments to strengthening research at both Nairobi and Makerere, without national support that can curtail the strong pressure for fundraising through expanding undergraduate enrolments, the institutions will not be able to manage the contradictory functions of undergraduate training and knowledge production.

Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


  • 1- Castells M (1993) “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”. In: A Ransom, S-M Khoo and V Selvaratnam (eds), Improving Higher Education in Developing Countries. Washington DC: The World Bank, pp 65-80.
  • 2- Cloete N, Maassen P and Bailey T (eds) (2015) Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.
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