Academic incentives for knowledge production

Academic incentives as a driver for knowledge outputs have been controversial in many higher education and research systems [1].

In some systems, for instance in South Africa, according to Catriona Macleod: “If you publish in an accredited journal, or in peer reviewed conference proceedings or books, you receive a percentage of the subsidy provided to the university by the Department of Higher Education and Training for that research output; depending on the university, you may pocket some or all of this money, although tax will be deducted, or the money will be placed in a research account for you to use for further research.” (Macleod 2010) [2].

But many African-based academics work in countries where such monetary incentive schemes are absent. What drives them to be more or less academically productive? What deters African academics from being as productive as their counterparts in Asia, Europe and America? What kind of incentives are needed?

We know that African academics can match their peers around the world with regards to knowledge production and productivity. A lot has been written about the contribution of many African academics to the global knowledge enterprise [3].

But most of them had to leave the continent in search of a more academically productive milieu in the diaspora [4]. We are only too aware of the difficult structural conditions – social, economic and political – under which most academics work on the continent.


Since independence in the 1960s and 1970s, the participation of African universities in knowledge production has consisted mainly of the relentless teaching of knowledge produced elsewhere, while also seeking a place in the global knowledge production enterprise.

For decades World Bank policies discouraged investment in African higher education [5]. But since the 1990s Africans have managed to reclaim the right to universities as knowledge-producing institutions.

In the past two decades there has been an exponential increase in the number of students in higher education, but the research component of the university has remained largely unchanged. Therefore, African universities can be still characterised as teaching-intensive.

Structurally there are still not adequate conditions and incentives to drive academics to engage in a more prolific knowledge production culture.

Lucrative short-term contracts and teaching overload in massive classes in night-shift courses for private fee-paying students, is driving academics into a ‘teach or perish’ vicious circle, instead of engaging in knowledge production related ‘academic core’ activities.

The March 2015 African Higher Education Summit, “Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future" [6], in Senegal’s capital Dakar, should be an opportunity to tackle these problems.

Unless proper incentive schemes – monetary and non-monetary – for knowledge production are put in place, African-based academics will continue to lag behind their peers in other parts of the world in terms of research.

Academic core

The notion of an ‘academic core’ is one of the key concepts developed by HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa [7].

The academic core consists of the inputs available for the delivery of teaching and research, and the research and teaching outputs the university produces on the basis of those inputs. In other words, HERANA uses the concept of academic core to measure the performance of academics, departments and universities.

Analogous to the notion of core business, the academic core in research institutions refers to the activities and deliverables of academics – teaching, supervision of postgraduate students, research and dissemination. The core outputs of these activities would be postgraduates, research and publication of results, preferably in peer-reviewed and accredited journals.

HERANA suggests that the core business of a research-led university is to deliver these academic core outputs. The performance of academics and institutions, national and cross-national, can be measured based on assessments of the extent to which they have reached academic core targets.

How are African flagship universities doing in this regard? The picture looks gloomy, although better than it did before.

According to Cloete and Mouton (2014) [8], publications in Africa increased from 11,776 in 2002 to 19,650 in 2008, a growth of 66.9%. Africa’s world share of publications increased from 1.6% to 2%, Latin America from 3.8% to 4.9% and Asia from 24.2% to 30.7%.

But from 2000 to 2008, Asia’s share of researchers rose from 35.2% to 38.2%, Latin America's from 3% to 3.8% – and Africa’s share fell from 2.2% to 2.1%. If Africa were a country, it would be just behind India, China and Brazil in publication output.

A question of incentives

While economic models of compensation treat pay practices as a solution to an incentive problem, classical sociology has established ‘disinterestedness’ as a core value and norm of the academic enterprise.

As such, 'disinterestedness' carries with it the expectation that scientists should have no emotional or financial attachments to their work (Macfarlane and Cheng 2008) [9].

Merton (1942) [10] assigned high moral standards of personal integrity to scientists who, he argued, were motivated and rewarded through recognition of their achievements rather than monetary gain. Scientists are interested in finding out the truth even if the truth proves the scientist wrong.

For Merton, recognition is a form of intellectual property. Since science puts a premium on originality and on advancing the field, there is intense pressure on ‘being first’. This is where the rewards are found: for those who are not acknowledged, accomplishments are forgotten.

Globally, and particularly in the African context, if we want to reflect about policy to drive up knowledge production, we must first acknowledge what drives the knowledge producers – the homo academicus, to put it a la Bourdieu.

Basic elements that have been identified in the literature include curiosity and a taste for science, what Bourdieu (1986) [11] calls libido sciendi – money, the desire for fame and reputation and, as a secondary goal, promotion or tenure – Stephan (1996) [12] and Lutomiah (2014) [13].

The previous two goals are generally accomplished through precedence in dissemination, particularly through accredited publication – that is, being the first to get a discovery to a relevant audience.

By and large, monetary recompense is undoubtedly a considerable incentive in the search for reputation and promotion. Significant evidence shows that for academics in universities and public research institutions with some degree of assured pay, the leading driver – scholarly inquisitiveness – is of prime prominence.

For this category of scholars, with a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu 1990) [14], the desire for financial rewards is frequently driven by the desire to fund their own scientific research – Lee (2000) [15] and Langa (2010) [16] – rather than by consumption and amassing wealth.

But in the African context, academics experience a double bind.

First, rushing from one overcrowded class to the other is not favourable for sustaining the libido sciendi that drives academic productivity. Second, the material condition of existence for most African-based academics is such that they need to secure an extra income, mostly resorting to sporadic lucrative non-academic contracts.

New policies and inconclusive conclusions

What can be done to incentivise African-based academics to engage in the production of academic core deliverables in research-led universities?

In terms of policy, it should be possible to find a middle ground for the ‘double bind’ and improve the conditions under which African academic work takes place, through academic incentive schemes. Some actions could be to:
  • • Incentivise academics and departments by promoting (internal) institutional differentiation based on performance against specifically targeted academic core indicators.
  • • Establish a rating system for researchers – such as the South African National Research Foundation classification – based on academic core performance indicators and not simply on the basis of academic position of seniority. In some universities, seniority can be acquired politically and corruptly without being related to academic performance.
  • • Review the overarching system in some African universities that strongly creates disincentives for the few African-based academics who are capable of raising research funds, and support a “growing budget by taking no overhead at all for the first year of an increased budget” (Myklebust 2015) [17].
Finally, to support upcoming research-led African universities, national governments will need to resolve problems associated with rapid expansion of public and private universities, and also curb commercialisation in some public universities, to strengthen research capacity.

University leaders will need to rethink their expansion strategies, balance undergraduate-postgraduate student and junior-senior staff ratios, and put in place much stronger incentives for academic core outputs.

Patrício Langa is a sociologist and associate professor of higher education studies who, among other things, teaches at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He is president of the Mozambican Sociological Association.

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