Research – The lost mission of African universities
Yet, many university leaders hold the mistaken notion that their universities have always been research universities. It is only over the past decade that the research mission has emerged again as a key vision of African universities.
In colonial times, the British government set up several commissions to explore the need for higher education in British colonial Africa. Among eight well known commissions and advisory bodies established during the colonial era (from the Madden Commission in 1841 to the Asquith Commission in 1945), it is worth noting that the Channon Commission (1943) was the first to mention the need for future universities in the British colonies to include research as a core function.
Thus, research became part of the mission of universities that were later established by the colonial and national governments.
Since the establishment of universities in British colonial Africa in the late 1940s, several conferences have been held to discuss the notion of the African university and its mission. These meetings brought together key stakeholders in higher education across Africa and assessed the role and relevance of universities at each period of their history.
Of the four main conferences held before 2000 (Addis Ababa Conference, 1961; Tananarive Conference, 1962; Accra Workshop, 1972, and Tananarive Conference, 1980), it was only the 1962 conference that strongly emphasised research as a key mission of African universities.
Years after these national universities were founded, most governments in their respective countries were overthrown. Military governments interfered with the administration of universities by appointing their political affiliates to positions of authority, and in some cases instructing heads of universities on how the universities should be managed.
Although universities had the desire to carry out research, they lacked the necessary funding, a critical mass of researchers and infrastructure to carry out research.
When research became a ‘lost mission’
When African universities were established, they were expected to know what research was about and to make their findings available to the government and society, helping to tackle societal and development problems.
However, the years after independence saw a lot of government involvement in the management of universities. Those governments did not pursue the research agenda of the universities, but rather furthered their nationalistic views of how universities should be run.
In that period, the research mission of these universities became ‘lost’: many African universities and their governments did not see research as a priority, which resulted in a very low research output. Postgraduate research was virtually non-existent.
Universities only carried out their mandate of developing human resources for the country. Between 1960 and 2000 – the period of the ‘lost research mission’ – African universities were labelled, among others, ‘teaching’, ‘vocational’ and then ‘developmental’. During that period, they were never known as ‘research universities’.
Evidence of this ‘lost research mission’ period can be found in the low research output of the continent during that period.
Data from the Thomson Reuters WoS-Science Citation Index shows that Africa, excluding South Africa, produced 1,646 publications between 1985 and 2000 and 5,534 publications between 2000 and 2015 within the sciences. These numbers fall well below the total global scientific output for the same period, of 44,963,737 (mostly from Europe and the United States).
In addition, during the period of the ‘lost research mission’, the ratio of gross domestic expenditure on research and development, or GERD, to gross domestic product, or GDP, of all African countries excluding South Africa was less than 0.2% – and non existent in most African countries.
During this ‘lost research mission’ phase, many African universities were mandated by their national governments to train skilled workers including health assistants, secretaries and both engineering technicians and engineers. In addition, researchers were mostly interested in research that would facilitate their promotion within the university – with fewer publications needed to be promoted.
Outcomes of research carried out at universities were hardly disseminated to the public and, in some cases, were kept confidential. Anecdotal evidence suggests that universities were also under siege from dictatorial governments that did not like researchers publishing anything contrary to the official standpoint. This authoritarian tendency forced universities to focus on knowledge for its own sake.
Regaining the ‘research mission’
Since 2000, African universities have shifted policies and now embrace global changes in their missions. The advent of university rankings, internationalisation and the issue of massification have all prompted university administrators and national governments to reconsider the ‘lost’ research mission.
For instance, in defining its new mission, the University of Ghana stated that: “It would aspire to move closer to some of the world-renowned universities who have achieved world-class status through cutting-edge research.”
Since 2004, universities have begun to invest more in research and publishing in international journals. Postgraduate studies have also been enhanced, especially at the masters and doctoral levels, by recruiting more professors to undertake the supervision of research graduates and by establishing laboratories.
To improve their research output, most universities have also established offices of research and development and schools or faculties of research and graduate studies. Offices of R&D are very new to most universities, and are mainly found at flagship universities, such as the University of Ghana or the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
The belief is that these research offices will increase the focus of the university’s research, improve the quality of research and attract funding. The task of these offices is also to help foster and improve relations with other research institutions and with donors in the West. The new research mission of African universities has forced them to develop policies to guide them through the process of improving their research effort.
In addition, universities have also developed research ethics and general research guidelines for their academic and research staff.
Due to periods of military dictatorship, research at African universities lagged for four decades, while great progress was achieved at counterpart universities in Europe, the United States and selected Asian countries. This has contributed to a low classification of most African universities in international rankings.
To establish themselves as research universities, African universities will need to overcome enormous challenges, including lack of funding; inadequate training of their research staff; lack of appropriate structures for research evaluation; and a need to ensure research accountability, which is presently non-existent.
In addition, African universities need to define what university research is, and what form of research (basic and applied) they want to prioritise in order to meet their research mission. Research findings should benefit their respective national governments and communities and contribute to development and the knowledge economy.
Harris Andoh is research policy expert at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.
Why no mention of World Bank interference in the form of its decades-long denigration of the importance of African universities?
Eve Gray on the University World News Facebook page