New research, HE, development and innovation project

Higher education and research policy-makers and senior managers from nine developing countries in Africa and South East Asia converged on the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, last week for the launch of a unique executive leadership programme that aims to build capacity at national and institutional levels. The training is one stream of a Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – RHEDI – project also launched last week.

RHEDI builds on a “long and distinguished heritage” – 15 years of intensive foundational work dating back to the formation of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge in 1998.

After being based at the OECD and known as IHERD – Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development – for a couple of years, the project (re-named RHEDI) was adopted last year by the South African based educational non-profit SANTRUST.

Funding for all iterations of the project has come from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, or SIDA.

“The RHEDI programme intends to narrow the gap between science, technology, innovation and higher education studies by bringing scholars from different academic areas together to engage in strategic research projects that are of importance to developing countries,” says the project in an issues paper.

“By connecting these academic communities RHEDI aims to enhance the methodology for useful comparative analysis of different research and higher education landscapes.”

Key RHEDI activities will include commissioning research on challenges for developing countries, expanding the pool of scholars through strategic partnerships, providing forums for scholars and practitioners to engage, partnering with journals, and contributing to evidence-based policy-making.

Training component

For the academics involved in the original conception of the project – Professors Lynn Meek and Merle Jacob in particular – the Durban launch of RHEDI and especially its training programme marked the realisation of a long-held dream.

“Training was always an essential component of the original project and I feel most proud now that we are able to use that work as a knowledge base for our teaching and actually engage with people working in the sector,” said Jacob, professor of research policy at Lund University in Sweden and UNESCO Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems.

Facilitated by the LH Martin Institute, a national institute for tertiary education leadership and management based at the University of Melbourne, the training represents a serious attempt to discuss theoretical concepts and international trends, and their implications for local contexts, with actual managers.

Upon successful completion of the programme – which began with an intensive one-week residential component and will progress through teamwork, online learning and dissertations with final training in Asia later this year – participants will receive a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education Management (half masters) from the University of Melbourne.

What distinguishes the programme is the South-South peer-learning, the mix of policy and institutional leaders (which seldom happens), and discussions about areas which are usually not talked about – such as challenges with governance and management at policy and institutional levels.

The programme will enable its first intake of 48 participants to share and disseminate studies that reflect their own institutional context. This will provide context specific knowledge, which is often not available in developing countries.

African countries represented in the project include Ethiopia, Namibia, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania, while those representing the South East Asia region include Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Importance of research to developing nations

Describing RHEDI as having a “long and distinguished heritage”, Meek said its establishment was motivated by a growing understanding of the importance of research capacity in helping low- and middle-income countries participate in the knowledge economy.

A professorial fellow and foundation director of the LH Martin Institute, Meek said that in its most recent iteration the RHEDI project had adopted a more “field-based approach” in its work and was committed to forging working partnerships and understanding comparative advantage in the sector.

He argued that it was a mistake to assume that research issues for developed and developing countries were mutually exclusive.

“The most basic questions concerning research and innovation are as relevant for developed as they are for developing countries,” he said. However, he noted that understanding local context remains “paramount”.

RHEDI’s research component

Taking place alongside the training programme was a one-day experts’ roundtable meeting attended by approximately 20 specially invited international policy-makers and experts.

They were brought together to identify relevant topics or ‘gaps’ to provide a base for RHEDI’s ongoing research activities in the areas of: governance of research and innovation policies; institutional leadership and management; capacity building; and communication, dissemination and outreach.

“Our ultimate goal is to produce a comprehensive and qualitative typology which can be used for comparative analysis of all aspects of national research systems,” said Merle Jacob.

SANTRUST chair Dr Dave Woods told University World News it is intended that the research projects identified through the expert meeting would provide an opportunity for younger researchers to gain experience in research practice as well as contributing to the broader knowledge pool.

Drawing a distinction between world-class universities and world-class education systems, Lynn Meek reminded participants that no country in the world had sufficient resources to ensure all its tertiary institutions were funded to the level of research-intensive universities.

“The system needs differentiation, so the question becomes how to develop a rational division of labour among tertiary institutions in order to meet society’s needs.”

Echoing this view, Jacob said priority-setting models were a key component in building research management capacity. “No-one has an infinite amount of money, so priorities will have to be set.”

Jacob said it was also important to understand the implications – both positive and negative – for developing countries of increased global mobility among career-minded graduates.

The numerous suggestions emerging from the experts’ meeting are being distilled by Professor Alan Pettigrew, honorary professorial fellow of the LH Martin Institute and a former vice-chancellor of the University of New England.

These, and numerous key issues around research, higher education, development and innovation will be explored by RHEDI researchers and executive leadership students in the coming years.

* University World News is a media partner to the RHEDI project. A special report on the project’s work in Durban will be published in UWN next weekend.