Major research boosts data collection in universities

Six years of research in collaboration with flagship universities in eight African countries has produced a unique, comprehensive and comparable data set – and in the process data collection capacity in the institutions has improved “dramatically”, supporting steady growth in their production of knowledge and PhDs.

Professor Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation based in South Africa, and leader of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – HERANA – launched the third phase of the major research project at a workshop held in Stellenbosch, South Africa, from 18-21 November 2014 and described the research and analysis undertaken so far.

The overall picture was of leading universities that faced considerable challenges but were heading steadily – or in some cases rapidly – upwards in terms of key indicators such as staff qualifications, postgraduate training and academic publication.

This against a backdrop of a continental rise that saw research publications in Africa grow from 11,776 in 2002 to 19,650 in 2008 – 66.9% growth against a world average of 34.5% – and Africa’s world share increase from 1.6% to 2.0% while Latin America’s share expanded from 3.8% to 4.9% and Asia from 24.2% to 30.7%.

“If the African Union were a country, it would be just behind India, China and Brazil but ahead of Russia in publication output,” Cloete told the workshop.

HERANA I and HERANA II focused on exhaustively collecting and analysing data and producing indicators for leading institutions in eight African countries including the universities of Botswana, Cape Town in South Africa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ghana, Nairobi in Kenya, Mauritius, and Makerere in Uganda.

“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,” said Cloete.

By the sixth year, HERANA had grown to a network of 50 academics and senior administrators in 12 countries. A core group of institutional planners had been produced, who had been recruited to high level positions at universities across Africa.

Institutionalising data collection

HERANA III aims to do what is suggested in its title: “Institutionalising data collection and analysis to strengthen knowledge production in a group of emerging research-intensive flagship universities in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

The project, once again funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will run until December 2016, and will bring the data up to 2013 or if possible 2014.

“It is quite clear to us that the data collection capacity within institutions has increased dramatically. But the question is, how institutionalised is the data collection? Also, is it being translated into an indicator or analytical information that can be used?” Cloete asked.

“The important thing is to step from data to indicator, and then from indicator into the planning process or use in the institution.”

Specifically, there will be institutionalisation of six years of capacity building in performance data collection within the HERANA universities, Cloete said later.

This would be combined with the promotion of institution-specific policies to contribute to their knowledge-producing capabilities, which among others things includes producing more PhDs and increasing the proportion of staff with doctorates and research output.

“This will form part of a larger set of activities to develop a group of research-intensive flagship universities in Africa,” said Cloete.

“To strengthen research intensiveness we are focusing on the knowledge producing structure of the university and also studying incentive regimes – direct and indirect.”

All of the institutions had accepted the importance of indicators, and there was agreement that performance indicators shared among a group of African institutions “not only created a much greater awareness of their possible use in planning, but has also created a ‘regional standard’ for benchmarking – in that sense it is much more informative and useful than the global rankings”.

Some trends

Cloete described a number of trends that had emerged from the HERANA work.

A report from Stellenbosch University’s Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy or SciSTIP – in which Cloete’s Centre for Higher Education Transformation is a partner – focused on the internationalisation of research activities.

“It shows that in terms of growth of internationally co-authored journal articles, the performance profiles of the eight institutions differ significantly – both across universities, as well as within the same university across fields of science. But, overall, the numbers are steadily increasing,” said Cloete.

“There is a considerable percentage increase in publication output, particularly beyond 2010, with Makerere and Ghana leading the group, and Nairobi and Botswana slowing down.” Makerere’s citations rose rapidly from 2009-13, meaning greater visibility for African science.

“Knowledge production in these flagship universities is internationalising, some very rapidly, and in many fields with larger citation impacts as a result.”

Of great concern however, said Cloete, was that except for materials science at the University of Cape Town, citations were overwhelmingly in the medical field. ‘Universities cannot only respond to disease in Africa, they also need to contribute to economic development.”

The need for research universities

From the start, said Cloete, HERANA worked on the premise that Africa needs research universities and focused on the loose notion of knowledge production.

“If Africa is supposed to become part of the knowledge economy, institutions are going to have to step up knowledge production.”

The importance of knowledge and higher education for sustainable development was global, even though there were contextual and regional differences.

“The sustainable, long-term beneficial contribution of knowledge to development is indirect, not direct. It is the knowledge re-generative capacity of universities that underlies sustainable development,” he told the workshop.

While the traditional role of universities in Africa had been training professionals, the new ‘engine of development’ role was knowledge production.

“African higher education needs to shift to increased participation – from a low base of under 10% – and increased knowledge production. This will require massification and differentiation,” said Cloete.

“Research universities in low- and middle-income countries have crucial roles to play in developing differentiated and effective academic systems, and in making it possible for their countries to join the global knowledge society and compete in sophisticated knowledge economies.”

“Understanding the characteristics of the research university and building the infrastructures and the intellectual environment needed for successful research universities is a top priority.”

While the OECD measures ‘knowledge production’ mainly with information about PhDs and research output, HERANA looked at a range of indicators they believed could be useful.

The Shanghai and other global rankings had put pressure on institutions – big and small, and everywhere – to perform, but it was “absolutely useless” for institutional improvement.

“Our attempt is to develop a set of indicators that institutions can actually respond to, and say this is something that we can improve,” Cloete explained. “Then hopefully we will have an outcome that is different, or we will stimulate a certain kind of behaviour or a certain set of outcomes. So we talk quite a lot in terms of inputs and outputs.”

The issue was that strengthening the institution was going to have to be driven from inside the university, with some external assistance or advice.

A major international study underway into 15 flagship universities around the world, looking at knowledge production, has found that even universities in Western countries sit with at least 50% of academics who do not produce anything but their minimum of teaching.

“Worldwide there’s a problem in moving them,” said Cloete. “This is leading towards the notion that if you try to bring about knowledge production reforms, you have to focus on the people who are doing it or are close to doing it.

“To try and change the whole institution and get everybody moving hasn’t happened anywhere in the world. So when attempting to improve knowledge production in an institution, where you are looking is key.”

The future

Cloete told the workshop that in partnering with SciSTIP – which also has the Leiden Centre for Science and Technology Studies in the Netherlands as a partner – the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, and HERANA had “a much larger range of skills and networks”.

In March this year the HERANA universities will be able to attend a course on bibliometrics, and later a course on research management and institutional planning, both at SciSTIP.

Also during HERANA III there will be updating of data on the ‘academic core’ of the participating universities for 2012 to 2014, and analysis of research funding sources at each institution.

Each university will produce a short report on institutionalising data collection and performance indicators, will hold a forum to discuss the updated indicators and possible implications for the university, and will produce an Institutional Academic Core Indicator report including suggestions and strategies to strengthen knowledge production.

For its part, CHET will revise its data capturing and data manual, produce An Empirical Overview of Eight Flagship Universities (2011-2014) report, hold consultative seminars and provide training in bibliometrics and planning, and update and improve the African higher education open data on its website.

CHET will also develop and pilot an integrated data management system and produce a book on the development of emerging research universities in Africa, in collaboration with representatives of the HERANA universities.