Universities held back by low research output – Report

The 2016 benchmarking report for the World Bank-initiated Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology or PASET shows that research output remains low in Sub-Saharan African universities, causing African institutions to miss out on inclusion in important global university rankings.

The report, released last month, found that the universities missed out, due to 'insignificant' research production, in the 2015 Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, which featured 1,200 universities.

Released last month, the report assessed 31 participating Sub-Saharan African universities and was authored by a team led by Ekua Bentil, education specialist at the World Bank.

While the institutions did produce a number of academic papers, the numbers were too low compared with universities in other parts of the world, according to the assessment, which focused on various indicators over a five-year period to 2016.

“Of the universities which do have scientific papers indexed by Elsevier’s Scopus, the majority have less than 200 papers,” the report states.

The study was carried out by experts from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Center for World-Class Universities in China. The benchmarking methodology was adapted to the African context.

Research funding increase

While the proportion of academic staff with doctoral qualifications indicated a huge gap varying between 5% and 89% in some cases, the study found that the amount of research funding per lecturer had increased four-fold during the five-year period.

Universities under review however raised their spending on research funding, devoting 3%-4% of their budgets to research activities, but insignificant amounts were spent on technology transfer initiatives resulting in low numbers of patents registered.

“In general, the participating universities did not demonstrate significant technology transfer results in terms of the number of new patents registered as well as the number of jobs created,” it adds.

Reputable institutions

Some of the institutions that were reviewed in the exercise include reputable universities in their respective regions, including Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the University of Rwanda in East Africa, the universities of Ghana and Benin in West Africa, as well as the University of Zambia – the only one reviewed in the Southern Africa region.

The World Bank launched PASET after consultation with African governments in Ethiopia in 2013, with an initial proposal for engagement between partners in broad areas such as faculty development, agricultural training and research, university-industry linkages, use of ICT, training of academic staff and infrastructural development.

The partnership aims to link universities and governments on the continent with counterparts in India, China, South Korea and Brazil for purposes of knowledge exchange and benchmarking purposes, to help the continent produce more skilled personnel in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, for accelerated socio-economic development.

Initiatives under the partnership include the Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology or ASET Action Plan, the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund and the Benchmarking for ASET programme, among others.

The latest report finds that gender inclusion remains low with only three out of 10 students (18%-39%) being females in STEM programmes taught in the 31 universities, with the rate of learners passing professional exams being as low as three out of 10 in some institutions and a 100% pass rate in others.


The report, released on 13 January, found that the rate of employment among STEM graduates was high, with three out of five securing employment within the first six months of graduating, an indication of high demand for professionals in these fields, despite the fact that programmes taught in African universities were heavily skewed towards the humanities – at 75% of all courses offered.

That aside, only a third of students had an opportunity for internship despite commendable efforts by universities to engage industry to make opportunities available, while only a minor proportion of full-time lecturers were found to be practitioners in their relevant fields.

In universities where the graduate employment rate was noted to be low, the report blamed the situation on the probable lack of relevance of programmes to the needs of the labour market.

“In those universities with a low employment rate, this situation is likely to reflect the lack of relevance of the courses and curriculum design to the job market,” the report states.

Internationalisation of learning remained a challenge with participating universities recording negligible levels of student exchange.

However, the production of international joint publications was noted to have improved, especially for those universities that had recorded few international research collaborations five years earlier.


Universities were found to have good levels of autonomy in the management of their affairs with many reporting that they enjoyed high levels of academic freedom as well.

However, the situation was significantly different on the financial front where 7% of institutions indicated that more than half their income came from the state, a situation that cut across the continent’s entire higher education sector.

Indeed, the report finds that only 25 of the universities could raise half of their funding from their own income-generating activities, subjecting them to uncertainty associated with inadequate and fluctuating state funding.