HERANA – Research on flagship universities in Africa

The Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – HERANA – project was initiated to explore the link between universities and development on the continent. The study started with the collection of data at both the national and institutional levels at universities in eight African countries.

The project has been led by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, and the universities participating are: Botswana, Cape Town in South Africa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ghana, Nairobi in Kenya, Mauritius, and Makerere in Uganda.

The eight universities were selected because each had been the most prominent national university in its country since independence, and because each has broad, flagship goals built into its vision and mission statements. Each of the universities aims to:
  • • Have a high academic rating, which would make it a world-class university or at least a leading or premier university in Africa.
  • • Be a centre for academic excellence.
  • • Engage in high quality research and scholarship.
  • • Deliver knowledge products that will enhance both national and regional development. (Nico Cloete et al 2011)
At the time of the first data collection, from 2009-10, some universities could not extract the required data because they did not have appropriate or functional electronic student and staff databases. Sometimes the data were only available in summarised tables in print format.

There were also gaps in the data on electronic databases, as well as inaccurate classifications and incomplete graduate sets. Grades used to indicate student success in specific courses were not comprehensively captured.

Some institutions did not have a central management information office in which complete data sets were stored. A consequence of this decentralisation was that different versions of student and staff data were held in different operational units. Another major problem was that the concepts of full-time equivalent students and staff were not widely used.

CHET’s data task team resolved initial problems in a number of different ways. Available electronic student unit records were copied and subjected to detailed analyses. The task team also used printed and internet copies of institutional annual and planning reports to verify or correct data that had been submitted by participating universities (Cloete et al 2011).

Following groundwork on performance indicators laid during the first phase of the HERANA project with the participating universities, institutions were encouraged during the second phase – 2011-14 – to further develop both their data management systems and human resource capacity for the collection of institutional data.

To support this process, a manual on the collection and analysis of HERANA data was developed and distributed to institutions. By March 2013, all of the data sets were complete (Ian Bunting, Nico Cloete and Francois van Schalkwyk 2014b).

It is clear from the engagement between the task team and the universities that the capacity of the universities to collect and prepare data has improved significantly over the period of engagement.

The outcome of the revised process was that CHET was able to compile the final analyses of student and staff data for 2008-11 around six months after starting the process, compared to the almost two years taken for the collection of data for 2001-07.

In its analyses of research outputs for 2001-07, CHET in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology extracted – from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) arts and humanities, social science and science-expanded indexes – all papers with at least one author whose address was one of the eight flagship universities.

If the authors of a research publication recorded on a citation index were employed by different universities, then full publication units were assigned to each of the universities concerned. This methodology was applied again to the collection of research data for 2008-11.

To ensure maximum accuracy, CHET returned the data it had collected, systematised and analysed, to each institution’s planning department in three states for verification. The publication emerging from this research, An Empirical Overview of Eight Flagship Universities in Africa (Ian Bunting, Nico Cloete and Francois Van Schalkwyk 2014a), was also reviewed by each of the participating institutions before finalisation.

A database that is unique to the African context has been developed during this process, containing 10 years of comparable data across the eight flagship universities.

In its analysis of performance indicators, CHET followed the OECD guidelines in taking the primary high-level knowledge inputs of universities to be doctoral enrolments and academic staff, and their high-level knowledge outputs to be doctoral graduates and research publications.

A key component of CHET’s analysis of performance was the link between knowledge outputs and high-level academic staff inputs of universities, which were taken to be: their permanent academic staff with doctoral qualifications; and their senior academic staff who hold ranks of professor or associate professor.

Results from the HERANA study

In terms of qualifications, the focus was on academic staff with doctoral degrees because they play an essential role in the production of research. Permanent academic staff should be the major producers of research outputs and (at input level) the main supervisors of doctoral students.

Based on work across South Africa, CHET proposed that a target of academic staff with doctoral qualifications should be at least 50% of permanent staff, given that all eight universities aimed to be active producers of high-level research.

Data showed that only three in the eight universities – Botswana, Cape Town and Ghana – had proportions of 50% or above of permanent academic staff with doctorates in 2011. The overall average for the eight universities improved from 40% in 2007 to 43% in 2011. Only Eduardo Mondlane (17%) continued to have an average well below 40%.

In terms of seniority of staff, senior academics were regarded as those in the categories of professors and associate professors, and junior academics to be in the categories of lecturer and junior lecturer and below.

The senior academic category is important because research leaders, particularly those leading research groups, should ideally be either professors or associate professors.

The junior academic category can provide a sense of what proportion of permanent academics of a university may not be sufficiently qualified to become research leaders. These staff would typically be pursuing personal research agendas designed to improve qualifications, such as doctoral programmes.

The study showed that 40% of staff at the University of Cape Town were in the senior category in 2011. Only Mauritius (24%) and Nairobi (24%) were above 20% in this category.

At the opposite end, and with the exception of Cape Town (31%), junior staff exceeded 50% with Eduardo Mondlane at 82%, Makerere at 71% and Dar es Salaam at 69%. These three universities also had very low percentages of senior lecturers (below 20%).

In terms of postgraduate knowledge outputs, the study showed that the masters graduate total of the eight universities increased from 2,268 in 2001 to 7,156 in 2011, at an average annual rate of 12% over the period.

Two universities were responsible for 66% of the overall increase of 4,888 in 2011 compared to 2001 – Nairobi, where the masters graduate total increased almost sevenfold from 370 in 2001 to 2,533 in 2011, and Ghana, where the masters graduate total almost trebled from 541 to 1,591.

The doctoral graduate total across the eight universities increased from 154 in 2001 to 367 in 2011. Collectively, Cape Town, Nairobi and Makerere produced 80% of the doctoral graduate total of the eight universities in 2001, 82% in 2007 and 76% in 2011.

Regarding publication, HERANA showed that the combined output doubled from 1,148 research articles in 2001 to 2,574 in 2011.

As in the case of doctoral graduates, the output of research articles was dominated by Cape Town, Nairobi and Makerere. The three universities produced 80% of the overall research article total in 2001 and 81% in 2011.

In 2011, Cape Town produced 1,517 ISI peer reviewed articles, while the other seven institutions combined produced 1,057.

Nonetheless, Cape Town is not very productive in international terms. For example, the most productive university in Latin America – the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil – produced 8,200 ISI publications in 2010 (Nasima Badsha and Nico Cloete 2011).

The combination of low proportions of senior academic staff – as indicated by six institutions being below 20% – with having fewer than 50% of staff with doctorates – as shown for six of the eight universities – can be expected to have a negative effect on knowledge production.

The study showed how, at certain universities, a low percentage of senior academic staff combined with a low percentage of doctoral graduates was associated with low knowledge output in the form of research articles.

Analysis shows that the groups of staff who would be expected to be active in research – those with doctorates and those at senior levels – were generally unproductive as far as high-level knowledge outputs were concerned.

This raises the issue of whether the universities have structures in place for the management of research and whether they have been able to introduce incentives designed to improve the research activities of academic staff members.

A lack of incentives – such as research funding or promotion prospects – may affect the output of staff who have doctorates but who are at levels of senior lecturer and below.

The administrative and teaching workloads of senior academics, along with a lack of research funding, may contribute to low productivity among senior academics at six of the eight universities. This is an area requiring more research.


A review of the mission statements of the eight universities in the HERANA study shows that two of the flagship goals were to engage in high quality research and scholarship and to deliver knowledge products that would enhance national and regional development.

The results suggest that Cape Town is the only university in this group that clearly satisfies these two goals, and that Makerere is the university that comes closest to Cape Town.

Some key problems that emerge from the study are that, relative to their undergraduate student bodies, the institutions enrol low proportions of postgraduate students at masters and doctoral levels. In 2011, 88% of all enrolments across the eight universities were undergraduates, with only Cape Town under 70%.

Furthermore, masters programmes overall seem to be focused on professional, capping degrees rather than on training for high-level research. This results in low numbers of masters graduates moving on to doctoral studies.

Additionally, the staff complements of seven universities (excluding Cape Town) consist of high proportions of junior, under-qualified academics, resulting in low numbers of potential research leaders.

Many of the senior, well-qualified staff appear to be promoted to administrative rather than research positions. There is clearly a need for more senior, professorial positions and research leaders with PhDs in the African flagship universities.

The university remains, despite sometimes strident claims to the contrary, the best and – in most contexts – the only producer of self-renewing, knowledge-producing capacity, meaning research-based PhDs (Michael Gibbons et al 1994).

The adjunct institutions of the knowledge economy are dependent upon a vibrant university sector from which they draw their self-renewable, knowledge generative capacity – being new PhDs – without which they cannot produce new knowledge.

Currently a vibrant, secondary knowledge production landscape only occurs successfully in countries that have a stable PhD-producing university sector; and these countries are mostly in the developed North.

In general, the African universities are not strengthening their self-generative capacity, and are thus struggling to make a substantial contribution to either new knowledge generation or the application thereof.

The chair of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, declared at the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s transition to democracy and the 50th anniversary of the African Union that these contexts provided an environment in which discussions on how Africa can propel its future development could take place.

She also asserted that universities – and particularly research universities – would enable Africa to grow its prosperity for the next 50 years (Munya Makoni 2014).

Moving beyond statements of intent, which in itself is a major step forward in the African context, it is necessary to gain a much better, research-based understanding of the characteristics of research universities – particularly in a developing country context – while simultaneously working on building the infrastructure and the academic environment needed to support emerging research universities in Africa.

* This article is an edited section of a forthcoming paper, “Research Universities in Africa: An empirical overview of eight flagship universities”, to be published by CHET. It is extracted and published with permission.

  • • Badsha, Nasima and Nico Cloete (2011) "Higher Education: Contribution for the NPC’s National Development Plan". Cape Town: CHET.
  • • Bunting, Ian, Nico Cloete and Francois van Schalkwyk (2014a) An Empirical Overview of Eight Flagship Universities in Africa: 2001-2011. Cape Town: CHET.
  • • Bunting, Ian, Nico Cloete and Francois van Schalkwyk (2014b) Data on Eight Flagship Universities in Africa 2009-2011. Harvard Dataverse Network (Distributor), Version 2.
  • • Cloete, Nico, Tracy Bailey, Pundy Pillay, Ian Bunting and Peter Maassen (2011) Universities and Economic Development in Africa. Cape Town: CHET.
  • • Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott and Martin Trow (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage.
  • • Makoni, Munyaradzi (2014) “Research universities to shape Africa’s future”, University World News, Edition 317: 25 April 2014.