Transforming Makerere into a research-led university

International donor agencies and foundations have pumped research funding into Uganda’s flagship Makerere University, and the institution has developed new research strategies and directions and strengthened graduate training and management. There have been collective benefits for the transforming university, according to Dr Florence Nakayiwa, director of the planning and development department.

Makerere is unquestionably a university on the rise.

This is reflected in indicators produced by the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – project and presentations by Nakayiwa and the university’s head of quality assurance Dr Vincent Ssembatya at a HERANA workshop held in Stellenbosch, South Africa, late last year.

The study placed Makerere as the second university after Cape Town among ‘flagships’ in eight African countries in terms of research, scholarship and knowledge production.

The figures are on the up – for instance, while Makerere produced 72 international research articles in 2001, the figure rose to 233 in 2007 and 382 in 2011. The number of PhD graduates produced grew from 11 in 2001 to 56 in 2011.

A research focus

“Makerere is repositioning itself to support research more than teaching. The vision of the university is to be a leading institution in academic excellence and innovation in Africa,” said Vincent Ssembatya.

“There was a lot of discussion about whether we should be modest by putting Africa [in the vision statement] instead of putting the world: we decided to be modest and take on Africa first.”

The pillars of Makerere’s strategic plan, Florence Nakayiwa explained, were to be a research-led university where research and teaching and learning were mutually reinforcing, to transition from a teacher-centred to a learner-centred and problem-based institution, and to embrace a paradigm shift from university outreach to knowledge transfer partnerships and networking.

The research-driven goal implied knowledge generation, transformation and utilisation and influencing of public policy, while the learner-centred pillar translated into producing graduates who were competitive, and adopting international technological breakthroughs.

Knowledge transfer partnerships required innovations to be incubated and commercialised, and community development initiatives to be designed and replicated.

International involvement

With little government support, Makerere’s research rise has been dependent on external sources. During 2013-14 it attracted US$90 million in external support for research from a range of donor agencies and foundations.

By far the largest sum – US$62 million – went to research in health sciences, followed by US$8.9 million for natural sciences, $5.4 million for institutional development, US$4.5 million for engineering, design, art and technology and just over US$3 million each for agriculture and for business and management sciences.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was the biggest donor, contributing US$13 million, followed by the National Institutes of Health (US$12,6 million), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US$9.4 million), the European Union (US$8.2 million), the Wellcome Trust (US$8.2 million) and USAID (US$7.2 million).

Nakayiwa said Makerere was increasingly involved in international research collaborations with other universities, for instance with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. It is part of a multidisciplinary effort led by seven world-class universities working directly to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development – Berkeley, Duke, Michigan State, College of William and Mary, Texas A&M, Makerere and MIT.

Indeed, Makerere is part of multiple research networks such as RUFORUM – Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture – the cross-country research capacity development network CARPREX, PANGeA, the Resilient Africa Network and Grand Challenges.

The university builds leverage for research support from its networks.

For instance RUFORUM, a consortium of 29 universities in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, is based at Makerere and provides leverage for agricultural research. There is also leverage for health research through involvement with the Washington DC based Accordia Global Health Foundation and its early successes in HIV-Aids research.

It was the university’s open door policy, said Nakayiwa, that had “spawned a cocktail of research programmes” that were individual-based, unit-specific and part of an institutional development programme.

The management style facilitated partnerships and networks, and had helped Makerere to pursue discipline-specific opportunities in the international research environment – although there were tensions between centralisation and decentralisation and a culture of “it’s my thing not our thing”.

“We are harnessing what the world is putting out to help us become research-led.” The university benefitted, but the downside was that the research agenda was defined within a global framework.

“Research networks are a fundamental aspect in how we get research out there and also in the formation of centres for research.” Nakayiwa described emerging centres of excellence in agriculture – plant breeding and bio-technology – and an Infectious Diseases Institute. There is also a new centre of excellence in oncology, supported by the African Development Bank.

“So there are pockets of centres of excellence coming up, and partly this comes from having flagship status, which is self-reinforcing for national and international partnerships.”

The context

Makerere was established 92 years ago, as a technical college. In 1963 it became part of the University of East Africa, offering degrees awarded by the University of London. In 1970 it became an independent institution when the University of East Africa split into Makerere and the universities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Makerere is the largest of Uganda’s public universities. “In 1989 there were only two universities; now we have moved to 41, seven of them public,” Vincent Ssembatya told the workshop. Now there are two new public universities, and one has just started admitting students.

The World Bank puts Uganda’s gross enrolment ratio at about 9%, although the National Council for Higher Education has stated that the figure is lower. Some 44% of students are female, and 20% are in science and technology.

There are close to 200,000 students in Uganda’s higher education sector, and 18% of them are at Makerere, which also employs 18% of the country’s academic staff – some 1,200 in 2011. “There are 566 with PhDs out of a system total of 900,” said Ssembatya. While the national student-staff ratio is 32:1, at Makerere it is 21.

He said HERANA data had been used to look at figures for the university’s 10 colleges and around 30 schools, rather than just using the university aggregate. It had enabled Makerere to show colleges areas in which they were or were not performing well. “We can also see how many PhDs each school and college has, and which are or are not producing publications."

In an environment of weak state support and policy, Makerere has had to go it alone in efforts to transform into a research university. There is a national development plan, but while there is a strategic focus area for promoting science and technology, it does not talk about higher education.

“We don’t have any clearly defined strategies at national level. National expectations are based on our status as the premier institution, but there are no clear indicators of what is expected from us,” said Nakayiwa.

“Since no national document really articulates university education as it ought to be, at institutional level we decided to come up with our own definitions and pathways for becoming research led.”

The context for research in Uganda is characterised by fragmented support, lack of a comprehensive financing mechanism for research, lack of a dissemination mechanism, a limited national policy framework for research, a Ministry of Education focused on primary education and a national budget of less than 0.3% of gross domestic product.

Facilitating factors for research capacity development, said Nakayiwa, were a clear strategy and management style, flagship status, the international research discourse, Makerere’s growing involvement in international partnerships and networks, and the internationalisation of higher education.

“With respect to the management system, we do have a direction for research and graduate training and this is supposed to drive the research systems within the university. We have a policy framework and different boards for research and management, and a research monitoring framework that isn’t very vibrant but exists.”

The university had introduced incentives for research that were performance-based, traditional incentives through promotion, and monetary incentives that were project-based. The research agenda had been decided through a participatory process but was too broad.

Some implications and conclusions

The results of Makerere’s research efforts had been profound, said Nakayiwa, manifested among other ways in improved research performance and output.

“We have increased mobility of people and ideas, we have incremental access to resources for research and we have PhD training, postdoctoral fellowships, community development initiatives, greater research capacity and research systems development.”

Research measures had been developed and incorporated into the strategic plan, and included numbers of publications, research income and spending, numbers of research professors and doctoral students and graduates, post-doctoral work, and numbers of research projects and journals produced by Makerere colleges. “It has been hard tracking these indicators.”

Other challenges, she continued, were disjointed institutional definitions of performance and inadequate systems to keep track of the research performances of units and individuals.

“Also, our research is resource-dependent – this is a big challenge to the concept of being a research university, and there is therefore external influence on the research agenda – and we have intermittent brain drain.”

Further issues, said Nakayiwa, were “personalisation of the research process, research output imbalances between colleges and no indication of how we are utilising research findings.

“There may have been a lot of research but it hasn’t manifested into intellectual property for the university.” There are now plans to use patents as a performance measure and establish an intellectual property office.

Also, said Nakayiwa, the university was looking at performance management systems at the individual and unit level, and at how systems already in place could be used to strengthen research – for instance monitoring tools and research incentives.

The university needed to look more closely at wider dissemination of research outputs, joining more established research networks and the regional and international mobility of researchers.

Nakayiwa concluded – tentatively – that there had been research development at Makerere despite inhibiting national research characteristics, and that the research process “is intertwined with internationalisation”. There were pockets of excellence and research implementation in individual units, “together with collective benefit for the institution”.