AFRICA: Exploring the 'academic core' of universities

Lack of research funding and low knowledge production - both in PhD graduates and peer-reviewed publication - are the most serious challenges facing African universities as they work to strengthen their 'academic core' and make a sustainable contribution to development, a major study of higher education in eight African countries has revealed.

Low knowledge production levels cannot be blamed solely on lack of capacity and resources. Rather, the problem is lack of research incentives. "Governments and universities should explore incentive systems such as that in South Africa, where the government financially rewards institutions for PhD graduates and accredited publications".

The study was conducted over three years by the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa. HERANA is an expertise network aimed at developing higher education studies and research in Africa, driven by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, in Cape Town. University World News is a partner.

Its recently published synthesis report, Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination is authored by Professor Nico Cloete, the director of CHET, HERANA project manager and researcher Tracy Bailey, and Peter Maassen, a professor of higher education at the University of Oslo, HERANA's international partner university.

The report argues that the university's unique contribution to development is via knowledge, through teaching, research and engagement.

"Our contention is that the backbone or the foundation of the university's business is its academic core - that is, the basic handling of knowledge through teaching via academic degree programmes, research output and the production of doctorates," the authors write.

The 'academic core' was a key area explored in the larger study focusing on universities and economic development in eight African countries.

Flagship universities included in the study were: Botswana, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), Ghana, Makerere (Uganda), Mauritius and Nairobi (Kenya). These universities "are the leading knowledge-producing institutions expected to make a contribution to research and development".

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) was selected, based on its comparability in terms of size and profile to the other seven institutions. Cape Town was also included in the 'academic core' analysis, as Africa's top-ranked research university.

The research set out to discover whether the universities had strong academic cores, or were at least moving in that direction. To ascertain the strength of the 'core', the researchers identified eight indicators including five input and three output indicators, some based on traditional notions of the role of flagship universities as producers of new knowledge and the next generation of academics, and others pertinent to the African context.

The 'input' indicators were: enrolments in science, engineering and technology (SET); postgraduate enrolments; the academic staff-to-student ratio; proportion of academic staff with doctoral degrees; and research funding per academic. 'Output' indicators were: graduation rates in SET fields; and knowledge production in the form of doctoral graduates and publications in recognised ISI journals.

Except for Cape Town and NMMU, the researchers found, "the universities struggled to compile the data, and it became clear that an important task in developing the academic core would be to improve the definition of key performance indicators and the systematic, institution-wide capturing and processing of data."

From their scores based on data for the period 2001 to 2007, institutions were categorised into the following groups:

Group 1: Cape Town, the only university that was strong on all input and output ratings.
Group 2: Mauritius, Makerere and NMMU, which had medium ratings on both the input and the output sides.
Group 3: Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, which had overall medium ratings but were weak on the output side.
Group 4: Botswana, Ghana and Eduardo Mondlane, which had weak ratings on both the input and the output side.

"With the exception of Cape Town, the universities were primarily undergraduate teaching institutions and did not have academic cores that lived up to expectations contained in their mission statements," the authors write.

Two input indicators that revealed considerable variation between universities were student-staff ratios and permanent academics with doctorates.

Two universities managed to decrease the instruction loads of academics between 2001 and 2007 - Mauritius from 24 to 16 students per academic, and NMMU from 31 to 28. But student-academic ratios at Ghana soared from 12 to 31 students per academic, and Botswana's ratio rose from 14 to 27 academics per student.

Still, write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen: "These ratios do not support the stereotype of 'mass overcrowding' in African higher education," - at least certainly not in flagship universities. But the figures hid substantial variations between fields of study. For instance, at Makerere the student-staff ratio in 2007 was 11 students per academic in SET but 96:1 in business.

The data showed that at three universities, more than half of all permanent academics had doctorates. They were Nairobi (71%), Cape Town (58%) and Dar es Salaam (50%). "This is very strong capacity - in South Africa, only three of 23 universities in 2007 had a proportion of 50% or higher of permanent academic staff with doctorates."

Manageable student-staff ratios and relatively high levels of staff with PhDs, the authors write, "could partially account for solid undergraduate success rates".

The output indicator data showed some convergence between universities, with the exception of Cape Town. The study found acceptable SET graduation rates - especially at Botswana, Makerere, Mauritius and Cape Town. But there were also areas of great concern, including low numbers of doctoral students, and lack of research funds.

There has been an explosion in (especially coursework) masters enrolments and graduations. "While coursework masters degrees increase the pool of highly-skilled workers beyond the bachelor degree - a feature of many knowledge economies - they do not seem to prepare students for doctoral studies," write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.

And the rise in masters has not translated into increased enrolments in doctoral studies. "The continuation rates from masters to doctoral studies seem absurdly low in certain cases." Eduardo Mondlane, Makerere and Nairobi had ratios above 50 masters to one PhD student.

Most worrisome, the authors write, is that except for three institutions which started from a very low base, at all institutions growth in PhD graduations was below 10%. At Nairobi, doctoral enrolments declined by 17%. Five universities produced 20 or fewer PhDs in 2007, while only Makerere, Nairobi and NMMU produced between 20 and 40, and Cape Town over 100.

"Not enrolling and graduating PhDs has serious consequences. First, one of the core tasks of the flagship university in any country is to reproduce its own academic staff, and to produce academics for other higher education institutions in the system. Second, it has to respond to increasing demand in the knowledge economy for people with doctorates in institutions other than the university," the authors argue.

In South Africa, there is a high correlation between the proportion of academics with a doctorate and research publications produced at a university. "'ISI-referenced publications' represents a narrow notion of research output, but it is what makes a flagship university and its academics part of the global knowledge community," they continue.

But while several of the universities studied had very strong capacity in terms of proportions of academics with PhDs, "it did not translate into research productivity".

Only Cape Town achieved a ratio of one article per academic per year: a total of 1,017 ISI-accredited publications in 2007. NMMU's ratio was one article per academic every three years, and Makerere's was one article every five years. "At the other universities, each academic was likely to publish on average only one article every 10 or more years."

There has been growth in publication by most of the universities. For instance, Makerere showed an 11.6% growth in publication output over seven years, Mauritius 7.8%, Botswana 7.4% and Dar es Salaam 6.1%. But at Ghana and Nairobi, the output of publications declined.

And, the authors point out, although research productivity in terms of articles is rising, "since the productivity in the rest of the world is increasing much faster, the relative position of Africa as knowledge producer is decreasing gradually. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes around 0.7% to world scientific output, and this figure has decreased over the last 15 to 20 years."

Interviews with academics revealed three factors affecting the production of doctorates, research training and publication, write Cloete, Bailey and Maassen.

"The first was limited research funding at all the universities except Cape Town, and cumbersome procedures and restrictions on what funds can be used for, which makes consultancy more attractive.

"It emerged that consultancies have major advantages over research grants, providing direct supplementation of income and greater flexibility over how funds are spent, and having other benefits such as travel and being invited to join networks. But since there is no pressure to publish or to train postgraduates, consultancies do not strengthen the academic core."

Except for in South Africa, lack of incentives to publish was also a problem, starting with very little research funding from governments. University competitive funding was mostly young academics and PhD students, and many senior academics said the amounts were not worth applying for. In cases it was "nearly impossible" to get equipment maintenance funds.

A second factor was the "huge" increase in taught masters that often do not lead to doctoral study. "This could be part of the serious 'pipeline' problem that is curtailing PhD numbers and, hence, an essential ingredient in the knowledge production process," write the authors.

The third factor was supplementary teaching. Many academics teach privately within the university on 'parallel' courses for fee-paying students, as well as on courses for publicly funded students. And many also teach outside the university in private institutions.

"This leaves little time or energy for PhD supervision or research and publication, weakening the academic core."

"The lack of knowledge production at many of Africa's flagship institutions is not simply a lack of capacity and resources, but a complex set of capacities and contradictory rewards within a scarce-resource situation. To 'refocus' universities, attention will have to be paid to incentive structures that encourage knowledge production."

The study concludes that the knowledge production output of the academic cores at flagship African universities is not strong enough to enable universities to make a sustainable contribution to development.

None of the universities seemed to be moving significantly from a traditional undergraduate teaching role to a strong academic core that could contribute to new knowledge production and, by implication, to development.

"The most serious challenges to strengthening the academic core seems to be the lack of research funds and low knowledge production in term of PhD graduates and peer-reviewed publications. The low knowledge production cannot be blamed solely on low capacity and resources; the problematic incentive structure at these universities require further study."