Indicators show flagship African universities on rise

The notion of ‘Africa Rising’ has found traction in recent years, although the ascent is very uneven, says Nico Cloete, coordinator of HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa. Certainly the continent’s flagship universities are rising. “There are upward trends in a number of areas that I think are very positive.”

Research outputs are surging along with masters and doctoral graduate numbers, student-to-staff ratios are comparable to elsewhere in the world, the percentage of academics with PhDs is expanding and top universities are shifting evermore towards research.

But there are challenges, with improvements slow, more data and planning needed and tricky tensions – including between the imperatives of massification and knowledge production.

This is according to 15 years of data painstakingly gathered by HERANA in eight countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda – to create a unique, first picture of the performance of Africa’s top public universities.

The third phase of HERANA was marked by a seminar held in Franschhoek, South Africa, from 20-23 November 2016. The project will conclude this December with the last of many publications – a book on institutionalising data collection and analysis in order to strengthen knowledge production in emerging research-intensive universities in Africa.

At the seminar Cloete – director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust in Cape Town and a professor linked to the universities of Oslo, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape – presented an overview of HERANA data* produced with Ian Bunting and Francois van Schalkwyk.

He said data collection had improved remarkably at the HERANA institutions but was still “completely chaotic” in many universities across Africa. Countries urgently needed to create higher education information systems as the basis for policy and sector improvements.

Emerging research universities

Traditionally in Africa, universities have focused on three of the four functions highlighted by international sociologist Manuel Castells – the ideological function, selection of elites, and training – and have performed poorly on the fourth function, knowledge production.

Today, African higher education faces a dual problem; to expand student participation and to increase knowledge production. “You can’t do that within the same institutions, which is why it is necessary to look at the shape of the higher education system,” argued Cloete.

Research universities in low- and middle-income countries have crucial roles to play in developing differentiated and effective academic systems. HERANA identified key characteristics or indicators of research universities in the African context:
  • • 1- Full-time equivalent staff-student ratios.
  • • 2- Ratio of undergraduate to postgraduate students.
  • • 3- Masters-doctoral student ratios.
  • • 4- Doctoral enrolment and graduation.
  • • 5- Staff qualifications (percentage with a PhD) and rank (percentage of professors).
  • • 6- Research profile – books, articles and international conferences.
  • • 7- The knowledge production incentive-disincentive regime.
  • • 8- Role and coordination of human resources, research management and planning.
  • • 9- A pact – agreement between institutions and government.
Student-staff ratios

All of the HERANA institutions – the universities of Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Nairobi in Kenya, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Cape Town in South Africa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Makerere in Uganda – expanded massively in the 15 years to 2015.

Student numbers more than quadrupled at Eduardo Mondlane University (7,705 to 38,400) and the University of Nairobi (15,983to 68,9000), and shot from 11,421 to 35,700 at the University of Ghana.

There was more moderate growth at the universities of Botswana (11,736 to 14,400), Cape Town (16,800 to 28,000), Dar es Salaam (8,207 to 23,254), Makerere (21,705 to 35,700) and Mauritius (5,292 to 11,700).

The kind of growth found at the University of Nairobi is quite common, said Cloete, since student numbers are linked to state funding. Also there are ‘parallel’ students – who did not earn a government-sponsored place, but have access to private money – who pay fees for degree courses held in the evenings, which lecturers also get paid extra for.

“This has become a huge source of income for universities.” But there is a price to pay for multi-teaching by academics – not only within flagship universities but also at private institutions – and it is the negative impact on research and supervision.

“One of the biggest private universities in Kenya is opposite the gate of the University of Nairobi. Academics just walk over and teach there, and then come back in the evening. Staff can teach three times a day.”

Universities that have been trying to shift towards being research-led have been managing student growth somewhat better.

Despite rapid growth, the data beamed surprising light on student-staff ratios, “which are supposedly so bad in Africa, with students hanging out of windows”, quipped Cloete – overall, the ratios are not that different from elsewhere in the world.

In business, economics and management, ratios in 2015 ranged from 21 students per academic at Cape Town, Dar es Salaam and Mauritius to 150:1 at Nairobi – a dramatic rise from 19:1 in 2001 – and 123:1 at Ghana. Ratios were lower in education, humanities and social sciences, with the lowest of 16:1 at Cape Town and the highest of 48:1 at Nairobi.

In science and technology, ratios were lowest of all and comparable with world-class Oxford and Cambridge universities. Cape Town had the lowest ratio of 8:1 and the highest of 20:1 was at Mauritius. “This group consistently separate themselves out in African universities, and what nobody has explained properly is how scientists manage to keep their student-staff ratios so low, when they also get the most money. Is it simply an issue of laboratory space?”

Student growth must be carefully balanced by universities alongside staff numbers, if they are to become more research-intensive.

At the universities of Cape Town and Botswana student and staff growth have kept pace – both have grown by 3% annually at Cape Town over the 15 years, for instance. At the other institutions a reasonable balance has been maintained, except for Nairobi, where an annual rise in student numbers of nearly 14% has been accompanied by very little growth in staff.

Undergraduates and postgraduates

The original pact with flagship universities in Africa was to train people for the civil service and the professions, to replace departing colonialists, Cloete explained. “So they were massive undergraduate teaching institutions, and still are.”

In moving towards research, the ratio of undergraduate to postgraduate students becomes a key issue. HERANA concluded that at least 15% to 20% of a research-led university’s students should be at the postgraduate level, to support knowledge production.

At Cape Town, 34% of all students are postgraduates while the proportion is 18% at Nairobi, 14% at Ghana and 12% at Botswana. At the other five institutions, fewer than one in 10 students are postgraduates.

All the HERANA universities had grown masters and PhD graduate numbers – but increases were inflated by large intakes of masters students, mostly on taught rather than research masters, and were generally off a low base (zero at Eduardo Mondlane University).

The University of Nairobi had a dramatic rise in masters graduates over the 15 years, from 303 to 2,781 in 2015, as did Ghana (207 to 1,501), Dar es Salaam (204 to 817), Mauritius (69 to 350) and Makerere (337 to 971). Numbers at Cape Town rose from 555 to 1,214.

“In terms of human capacity development, having a lot of masters students is not a bad idea,” said Cloete. “There is a huge pool of people with masters to draw on, although the students might not be that well-prepared for a PhD.”

The problem is that the numbers of students on research masters remain too low for staff expansion and replenishment, as does the number of PhD students. Despite substantial increases in doctoral graduates, in 2015 they numbered only 204 at Cape Town, 100 at Nairobi, 64 at Makerere, 61 at Dar es Salaam and 25 or less at the other institutions.

Staff qualifications

The research measured staff qualifications by the percentage with a PhD and by rank – the proportion of professors – and showed the importance of the PhD in relation to research. The PhD is “now the big thing in Africa”, said Cloete, with the World Bank wanting 50,000.

“We found that broadly speaking, most of our universities have too few professors who can lead departments and research.” This is partly because under the old British system, there was a ‘one department, one professor’ kind of model.”

There are considerably more senior than junior academics only at Cape Town, where fewer than a third of staff are junior, while at Botswana, Mauritius and Nairobi there are fairly equal numbers of senior and junior academics.

“If you want research projects with postgraduate students, you need a reasonable proportion of staff with a PhD,” Cloete said. “But it is not easy to improve the percentage.”

Three universities grew their proportions of staff with a PhD substantially – Ghana by 11%, Cape Town by 10% and Mauritius by 9% – and Makerere and Eduardo Mondlane by 2%. At Botswana the proportion of academics with a PhD dropped by 8% and at Nairobi by a whopping 21%.

Research profiles and incentives

HERANA charted the research profiles of institutions through, among other things, publication of books and articles. Journal articles were tracked through the Web of Science, and significant increases in publication outputs were revealed.

In the 15 years, the University of Cape Town’s number of articles published in Web of Science rose from 796 to 2,683. But the most dramatic growth was at Makerere, where article numbers rose from 92 to 648, and at Ghana, where the increase was from 95 to 423.

At all the flagships, the fields of health sciences and of science, engineering and technology or SET generated the overwhelming majority of publications – on average around 80%.

“Remember, these are the faculties with small student-staff ratios and with huge development aid.” There is a need to continue funding health sciences and SET, to combat disease and to drive development.

“But what are Africa’s big problems?” asked Cloete. “They are social and governance problems. The reason why people are flooding into Europe is not because they are sick or hungry, it is because their countries are destabilised and not working.”

Non-science fields have high student:staff ratios and get little funding. “This is a huge problem that we will have to address at the continental level.”

Research by Cloete and colleagues in South Africa highlighted a strong correlation between proportions of academics with doctorates, and research outputs. “It shows clearly that people who publish without a PhD are exceptions, and that within this competitive global economy, the relationship between publishing and having a PhD is getting stronger.

“This brings us back to the importance of more staff with PhDs at research-led institutions.”

HR, research management and planning

Over and over again, the HERANA research confirmed the importance of research management and planning to shift a university towards research-led status.

There is also a growing understanding of the key role of human resource management, which Cloete said needs greater focus in future.

He told a story about Makerere, home to famous African social scientist Mahmood Mamdani, who runs a major, globally respected research institute. Ahead of his 70th birthday, Mamdani received a standard letter from HR, curtly reminding him to sign forms and hand over his keys.

“In many universities, HR departments have just got to the stage of proper procedures and making sure that nepotism and other harmful practices do not play a role. Now suddenly we want them to take another step – but it’s going to be an important step.”

Some key findings

The HERANA research led to several findings of importance to strengthening African higher education.

The ninth indicator for African research universities was the need for a ‘pact’ – an agreement between universities, government and key stakeholders in society relating to higher education’s role and development model. Only Mauritius was found to be moving in this direction.

A key concept arising from the research is that of an ‘academic core’ – a critical mass of academics that is an essential foundation for knowledge production.

At the African universities, said Cloete, there is an “academic core which is efficient in producing undergraduates, but not doctorates, nor in producing new knowledge that circulates in global academic networks or contributes to local application.

“While many academics are involved in development-related projects as ‘expert consultants’, these projects do not strengthen the academic core, nor contribute to development in a sustainable manner.”

HERANA found that few of the flagship universities had special funding or incentives for development-related research or engagement with industry.

However, “at each of the universities there are exemplary development projects that connect strongly to external stakeholders and strengthen the academic core – the challenge is to increase the number and scale of these projects.”

Returning to Castells, who argued that there are always contradictions and tensions around the four functions of the university – such as between massification and knowledge production – HERANA concluded that these cannot be resolved by universities alone.

“A country must at least have a national research system that includes a diversity of universities and other types of higher education institutions, private sector and public research centres, and private sector research and development,” said Cloete.

“This brings us back to the importance of a pact.” Achieving national agreement on the roles of particular institutions, and coordinating policies with other areas such as innovation and technology, is essential for the development of higher education and research-led universities.

All of the flagship African universities have taken the strategic decision to become research-intensive, Cloete concluded. They have a long way to go, but HERANA has revealed critical improvements in their performance that auger well for the future of African higher education.

* The latest data is for 2015 and the only institution for which it is not complete is the University of Nairobi.