More research needed on research management

Rather than mimicking ‘best practice’ of top-performing institutions, universities aspiring to the status of research institutions in low- and middle-income countries need to invest more heavily in understanding their own institutional profiles and develop a vision of what it means to be a research university in their national context.

Professor Nico Cloete, director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Higher Education Transformation, said this at an expert roundtable held at the launch of the Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – RHEDI – project in Durban in May.

RHEDI, adopted last year by the South African based educational non-profit SANTRUST and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is a global project working to narrow the gap between research, higher education and innovation in developing and developed countries through studies, scholarly networks and training.

Cloete said there was little doubt that African and other developing countries needed research universities, even if they were not ‘world-class’.

Research universities in low- and middle-income countries had a crucial role to play in making it possible for their countries to join the global knowledge society and to compete in sophisticated knowledge economies.

His work follows on research published last year by Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, as part of RHEDI predecessor IHERD – the Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development programme.

Understanding the research university

While research universities in the developing world have not yet reached the top levels of the global rankings, they are important in their countries and regions and are part of an active community of institutions that share values, foci and missions.

Strong universities can also play a role in strengthening other national universities, Cloete said.

In light of this developmental imperative, understanding the characteristics of the ‘research university’ and what is needed to build such an institution is becoming increasingly recognised as a priority – and one of the motivations behind the RHEDI leadership training programme that kicked off in Durban on 18 May.

“There is a big market for research management training in Africa and Southeast Asia and bringing the two regions together is useful,” Cloete told University World News.

“Both regions are characterised by younger universities and an eagerness to learn. They also have a layer of staff at universities and in government who have masters and doctoral degrees, but no specific training in research management.”

Mimetic normative isomorphism

Global and national demands on institutions give a “strong case” for research management systems and the professionalisation of the research management function.

But Cloete warned of the dangers of “mimetic normative isomorphism”, a term derived from organisational theory that describes the tendency of organisations (usually lacking clarity on goals and strategy) to mimic the management systems of high-status organisations.

In the case of universities, this is done less with an eye on academic excellence than a need to survive in economically competitive environments.

In tertiary institutions throughout the world, such imitation is seen inter alia in the expansion of the professional (management) class regardless of the specifics of institutional context.

“But you have to ensure that the balance is right – there may simply be too many managers and too few staff left on the ground to actually do the work,” said Cloete.

The tendency towards institutional mimicry was confirmed by research produced by Cloete and CHET colleague Professor Ian Bunting for an IHERD project in December 2013 entitled “Strengthening Knowledge Production in Universities” – aimed in part at enhancing capacity building in future research management training programmes.

Based on comparative studies of five South African universities that had undergone recent growth in research productivity, the study revealed almost identical research management structures in the most and least productive South African universities.

The most productive was the University of Cape Town, or UCT – number three in the BRICS and emerging economies rankings by Times Higher Education last year – and the least productive in terms of research output was Tshwane University of Technology, or TUT.

“The two extremes (UCT and TUT) could be regarded as an example of the assertion of Meek et al (2010) that while higher education is supposed to be about new knowledge and innovation, it is also about imitation, particularly of high status institutions and the latest global fads,” write Cloete and Bunting.

More research on research management

Based on this and other research, Cloete told RHEDI participants, institutional reforms should be informed by research rather than inspirational goals and vision statements. “Basically, there needs to be more research in research management,” he said.

Explaining the idea further in an interview with University World News, he said: “The OECD countries have done research on indicators which inform policy, but there is no real understanding of what underlies the indicators.

“We know, for example, that the best-performing universities tend to have more staff with PhDs but we don’t know exactly why that works. This lack of real understanding in turn leads to confused methodology when it comes to research offices measuring their own success.”

However, developing a clear explanation for increased knowledge production in any context remains complicated and is not easily attributable to the intervention of research managers or management systems.

According to Cloete, there is a “cluster” of factors that tend to push up productivity, but institution-specific factors also remain important.

For example, at the University of Cape Town 80% of publications come from the medical school and the science faculty. So while the output rate may be high, the disciplines producing them are not the main users of institutional development and support services.

Another widely accepted institutional indicator for increased publications is the degree of through-flow of students from masters to PhD level.

In theory this may be true but some institutions offer a significant number of professional masters programmes which produce very few PhD candidates while other institutions with a high number of PhD students are able to attract such students from outside institutions.

Another common indicator is the percentage of academics in an institution who hold doctorates. But, as Cloete pointed out, in institutions in developing countries many of these PhDs are elevated into administrative positions and have little direct impact on the development of the next cohort of researchers.

In the context of such variables, what remains important is the capacity of an individual institution to honestly and accurately assess its own performance and institutional imperatives. Thus institutions would do well to develop their own indicators, which take into account both institutional profile and national needs, he said.

* RHEDI will launch its own, interactive and resource-rich website on the University World News platform in the near future.