AFRICA: I once had a university in Africa...

Can the university in Africa lead the way out of erratic economic growth to an innovation-driven future? If so, what are the necessary conditions for this to happen? The recent HERANA (Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa) report offers some bracing answers to these questions, providing a refreshing alternative to both afro-pessimism and Bono-esque optimism.

The afro-pessimistic view sees no need to discuss African universities in the same breath with the rest of global academia. In this view, African universities are not even on the lowest rung of the competitive ladder, and therefore don't merit consideration. The HERANA authors point to the 2007 volume by Philip G Altbach and Jorge Balan who omitted Africa from their overview of 'world-class' universities for this reason.

The usual reasons given for the continuing languishing of Africa and her universities is endemic political patrimonialism and corruption, which squanders or steals all the money that might have gone into funding development and universities. It is hard to gainsay that it's pervasive throughout the continent. In this view, unless Africa ditches graft, it won't ditch poverty or be able to cultivate development.

The optimists, by contrast, blame neutral forces, like drought, or the economy, which has caught Africa in a 'poverty trap', in Jeffrey Sachs' evocative phrase, from which they are unable to generate the surplus for investment in development infrastructure. Walt Whitman Rostow said much the same in his theory of 'stages of growth' a few decades earlier.

Sachs, author of the resonant Millennium Development Goals, believes the answer to the 'end of poverty' lies in debt forgiveness and massive foreign aid, which is needed to establish the basic health and education infrastructure necessary for any growth to occur. Redemption from Africa's malaise lies thus within the gift of a benevolent or guilt-ridden West, not with Africa itself.

As the British economist Robert Skidelsky recently commented, reviewing Sachs' most recent book, this is classic American optimism: the conservatives blame 'big government', the liberals 'big business'. Circumvent both of them and the problem is halfway solved. Both find difficulty in explaining why good people are so often duped by one or the other.

The golden triangle

Can Africa help itself? The pessimists don't think so, and the optimists assume not without the help of donor countries. This is where HERANA makes a significant contribution, by changing the question, and the kind of answer sought.

The answer is succinct. Before universities can contribute to national development, they must be proficient in higher education core business - enabling and graduating masters and PhD candidates, and producing peer-reviewed publications.

Before this core business platform can be activated for development, there must be a pact - a common understanding about the role of universities in development and the contribution of new knowledge to it. For the pact to have 'teeth' there must be coordination between university activities and products on the one hand, and development plans and goals on the other.

Academic core, pact and coordination form the golden triangle that switches on the 'engine' of development.

The treatment and operationalisation of the academic core is the most rigorous and convincing part of the report, although the researchers' practice of treating all the academic core indicators as having equal weight and aggregating them produces some curious results.

For example, the University of Mauritius is classified as having a 'medium' academic core, even though its published research output is not distinguishable from that of 'weak' institutions like the universities of Nairobi (Kenya) and Botswana.

Nevertheless, the conclusion remains sobering: none of the eight institutions in the eight countries studied had academic cores strong enough to turn the starting motor over, let alone drive the engine of national development.

The pact and coordination discussions reveal that African countries have yet to begin to think of, and coordinate, their universities into an innovation-aligned path. That said, those university projects that were development-related were also those that were most aware of, and connected to, national development priorities.

The report turns the spotlight onto the predominantly donor-funded research activity in African universities, showing that much of this donor-funded activity, rather than strengthening the academic core, creates enclaves, islands of well-funded privilege in an environment of relative deprivation.

It would appear too that donor research is rarely published in peer-reviewed outlets and rarely produces postgraduate students; it becomes its own rationale, pursuing the insular grant requirements that just as rarely require plough-back into the academic core.

Whether-donor funded research is done mainly by academics who also publish and produce PhDs, as research by Mozambican scholar Patricio Langa shows, or whether it simply undermines the academic core, as South African Johann Mouton has it, awaits further research to decide.

It will go some way towards telling us whether the political venality identified by the pessimists also has a foothold in academia, or whether academia in Africa can indeed be looked to as a moral as well as an epistemological bastion of a future development.

A nuanced picture

The overall picture sketched here is a nuanced one. In gross terms, the HERANA research shows that nothing much is happening; in more developmental terms, it also shows that the most promising trends, the 'green shoots' in universities, are ticking all three boxes of core, pact and coordination.

The picture that emerges is not one of unrelieved gloom; it is rather one of macro stasis, micro movement. The report concludes with some useful comments on how to incentivise the 'green shoots'.

The value of this report lies in its close examination of eight African universities in terms of what they actually do and produce, and the context in which they do it. It enables us for the first time to compare activities across institutions and countries in this continent much neglected by the global research community.

The indicators and calibrations must be fine-tuned, but already the picture we have of Africa and its universities is incomparably richer than the one we had before HERANA.

* Professor Johan Muller is deputy dean of research and director of the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.