Great need for capacity building in research management

Professor Molly Lee’s impressive academic and professional résumé belies a refreshingly down-to-earth approach to issues of higher education. “I feel strongly about two things,” she told me over a quick working lunch between expert roundtable sessions in Durban. “One is the importance of underlying values in education; the other is the importance of indigenous knowledge systems.”

Lee is the former coordinator of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation for Development, and a programme specialist in higher education at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok.

She was among research policy experts invited to Durban in late May to participate in a roundtable discussion organised by the South African non-profit SANTRUST and intended to identify possible areas of future research for the new SANTRUST-hosted project, RHEDI – Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation.

Lee is no stranger to the RHEDI project, having been involved as a regional specialist in its earlier incarnations – the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge; and the Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development, or IHERD, project run under the auspices of the OECD.

Later in the day, Lee also shared her case study research findings with participants in the RHEDI executive training programme, which is aimed at building capacity among senior research managers and policy-makers from nine Southeast Asian and African countries.

Entitled “Gaps in Knowledge and Skills for Effective Research and Innovation Management: Four case studies”, Lee’s research – which covered Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam – made several recommendations.

These included: capacity building programmes for research managers and administrators at national level; a network of national training institutes; regional cooperation around the sharing of resources; and international aid for capacity building and programme development – most of which are embodied in some form in the RHEDI project.

Capacity building

Lee said RHEDI offered an opportunity for unique inter-regional research management.

“A key recommendation from our studies in the Southeast Asian region has been the need for capacity building. We have a number of different training programmes doing their own thing, so we recommended regional level partnerships – and it’s very rewarding to see it materialising here in Durban.

“We need more mid-level capacity building. We find some managers are creative but others are at a loss and do the best they can.”

She described the Melbourne-based LH Martin Institute, which is facilitating the RHEDI training, as “filling an important gap” in higher educational training needs.

On the issue of pairing participants from Africa and Southeast Asian countries, Lee conceded that local context still mattered but suggested there were enough similarities to make the inter-regional engagement useful.

“Obviously there are variations within regions and diversity is an issue, but many of our institutions are at the same or at a similar level of development and they do share some common issues now.

“These issues include lack of funding, the challenges of dissemination of information, lack of accountability… And in each case it’s more a matter of degree than the issue itself. Solutions are also similar.”

Lee cautioned that local politics tended to affect implementation, so each ‘solution’ or intervention might take on a “slightly different shape”.

Lee’s two key issues

Returning to the two issues close to her heart, Lee said she believed it was important to bring indigenous knowledge systems into the global arena.

“Some universities translate ‘service’ as working with industry. Some work with communities but they come as ‘experts’, bringing solutions. It’s not a simple knowledge transfer.”

Lee said India’s Ayurvedic industry demonstrated the potential of indigenous knowledge.

Her other “important issue”, the power of values underlying education systems, has in the past informed Lee’s research projects looking at the effects of a corporate managerial culture on universities and their academics – an issue of ongoing concern to universities in the developing world.

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