Support needed for emerging research universities

Internationally, there is growing consensus among national policy-makers and other central socio-economic actors that the university is a driver of economic growth and development. This has to do with the role of the university in producing a highly skilled and competent labour force, as well as in producing new knowledge.

Both contributions are essential to the creation of innovation and the development of a national economy that is globally competitive. This is well summed up by Olsson and Cooke (2013) in an OECD-IHERD report [1]:

“Top research universities in industrialised countries (often referred to as the Super RUs) usually dominate the global ranking tables. In contrast, their counterparts in middle- and low-income countries have, if anything, more important missions because they are the engines of local and regional knowledge development and natural leaders of their own evolving academic systems.

“As these systems become increasingly complex and the need to nurture knowledge networks for research grows ever more essential, the success of these institutions becomes even more crucial for national development policy.”

However, not all universities are research universities. Research universities are a relatively small percentage of the higher education sector.

In the United States, the ratio is about 5% – 220 research universities in a system of more than 4,000 post-secondary institutions; in the United Kingdom 25% – 25 research universities among 100 universities; and in China 3% – 100 research universities out of more than 3,000 institutions countrywide (Philip Altbach 2013) [2].

In many smaller developing countries there is often only one research university and many countries have none.

Does Africa have research universities?

Does Africa have research universities? In the current context of ‘world-class’ universities and rankings, an inevitable starting point is to consider how Africa is doing in the global rankings.

A recent review by Goolam Mohamedbhai (2012) [3], former secretary general of the Association of African Universities, shows that in the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities there are three African universities in the top 500: Cape Town (201-300), Witwatersrand (301-400) and KwaZulu-Natal (401-500).

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings places Cape Town at 103, Stellenbosch in the range 251-275, Witwatersrand 251-275 and Alexandria (Egypt) 301-400. As can be seen, of the five African universities in the top 500, four are from South Africa.

Evidence about Africa’s performance on the global research and science stage is not encouraging.

Paul Zeleza (2014) [4], in a broad-ranging review of Africa’s performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, shows that Africa remains at the bottom of the global science, technology and innovation league tables, and lags behind on key indicators such as the gross domestic expenditure on research and development, number of researchers and share of scientific publications and patents.

While Africa is at the bottom of every indicator, a positive is that the number of publications in Africa increased from 11,776 in 2002 to 19,650 in 2008, a growth rate of 66.9% in comparison to the world growth of 34.5%.

Africa’s world share of publications increased from 1.6% to 2.0%, Latin America from 3.8% to 4.9% and Asia from 24.2% to 30.7%.

In terms of share of researchers by region, the US’s share fell from 25.2% in 2002 to 22.7% in 2007, Asia’s rose from 35.2% to 38.2%, and Latin America also rose slightly from 3% to 3.8%, while Africa’s actually fell from 2.2% to 2.1%.

Missions versus realities

A review of the mission statements of eight flagship universities in the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – study shows that two of the goals of all eight universities were to engage in high quality research and scholarship, and to deliver knowledge products that would enhance national and regional development.

The universities are Botswana, Cape Town, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, Mauritius and Nairobi in Kenya.

Data presented in Chapter 2 of the new book Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education show that over the 2007-11 period, relative to their undergraduate student bodies the HERANA universities enrolled low proportions of postgraduate students at masters and doctoral levels [5].

In 2011, 88% of all enrolments across the eight universities were undergraduates, with only the University of Cape Town below 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 of the universities – excluding Cape Town – consist of high proportions of junior, under-qualified academics, resulting in low numbers of potential research leaders. Many senior, well-qualified staff appear to be promoted to administrative rather than research positions.

There is clearly a need for more professorial positions and research leaders with PhDs in African flagship universities. The results suggest that Cape Town is the only university in this group that clearly satisfies the two flagship goals mentioned above, and that Makerere University comes closest to Cape Town.

Too few PhDs

Of particular concern is the lack of producing doctorates.

In 2011, Cape Town produced 163 PhDs compared to the 204 produced by the other seven universities combined, with only Makerere University (56) and the University of Nairobi (61) producing more than 50 doctorates per annum.

In international comparative terms, in 2010 the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil (almost 90,000 students) produced 8,200 ISI Web of Science publications while the entire South African system (almost 900,000 students) produced just over 9,000. More concerning is that Sao Paulo produced 2,400 doctorates and South Africa only 1,420.

Another big difference between Sao Paolo and, for example, Cape Town – Africa’s top ranked university – is that, at the former, 98% of academics have doctorates, while at Cape Town the figure is just over 60% – which is the highest in South Africa.

Despite sometimes strident claims to the contrary, the university remains the best and, in most contexts, the only producer of self-renewing, knowledge-producing capacity, meaning research-based PhDs (Gibbons et al 1994) [6].

The adjunct institutions of the knowledge economy are dependent upon a vibrant university sector from which they draw their self-renewable, knowledge-generative capacity, 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, 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.

Building on the words of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in 2000 – “the university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development in the new century” – [7] were the declarations by African Union ministers of education at the UNESCO World Conference in 2009, and in 2014 the statement by African Union Commission Chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, at the 50th anniversary of the African Union, that universities – and particularly research universities – will enable Africa to grow its prosperity for the next 50 years (Makoni 2014) [8].

The next steps

Moving beyond statements of intent, which in themselves are 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.

To strengthen emerging research universities will require national governments to boost their national research and higher education council systems and adopt differentiation policies that reward research.

Universities will have to restructure their undergraduate-postgraduate and junior-senior staff ratios, and put in place much stronger incentives for PhD training and research outputs. And, finally, donors will have to radically rethink how they support this.

Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

  • • 1- Olsson Å and Cooke N (2013) The Evolving Path for Strengthening Research and Innovation Policy for Development. Paris: OECD.
  • • 2- Altbach P (2013) “Advancing the National and Global Knowledge Economy: The role of research universities in developing countries”. Studies in Higher Education, 38(3): 316-330.
  • • 2-
  • • 3- Mohamedbhai G (2012) “Global Rankings of Universities: Where do African universities stand?” Paper presented at the PULSAR 2012 Workshop, Johannesburg, 5-9 November 2012.
  • • 4- Zeleza P (2014) “The Development of STEM in Africa: Mobilizing the potential of the diaspora”. Paper presented at the third annual conference on “Effective US Strategy for African STEM Collaborations, Capacity Building and Diaspora Engagement”. University of Michigan, 1-4 April 2014.
  • • 5- Cloete N and Maassen P (2015) “Research Universities in Africa: An empirical overview of eight flagship universities”. In N Cloete, P Maassen and T Bailey (eds), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.
  • • 6- Gibbons M, Limoges C, Nowotny H, Schwartzman S, Scott P and Trow M (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.
  • • 7- United Nations Information Service (2000) “Information technology should be used to tap knowledge from greatest universities to bring learning to all”, Kofi Annan says. Press Release No: UNIS/SG/2625, 3 August 2000.
  • • 8- Makoni M (2014) “Research universities to shape Africa’s future”. University World News, Issue No 317, 25 April 2014.