HERANA – 10 years of growing research universities

During the early 2000s, a broad agreement emerged that higher education was important for development in Africa, although there were multiple, often competing, discourses about the roles of universities in relation to development. Within this zeitgeist, a number of development aid agencies agreed that a different, more collaborative approach to linking higher education and development was required.

The Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) project was forged during discussions among a wide range of funders convened by the United States-based Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) at a meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in January 2007.

Acknowledging the importance of coordinating resources and recognising the need for a project focussing on a group of leading national higher education institutions in Africa, PHEA (with support mainly from the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) in South Africa formed HERANA as a partnership with eight flagship universities on the continent – University of Botswana, University of Cape Town, University of Dar es Salaam, Eduardo Mondlane University, University of Ghana, Makerere University, University of Mauritius, and University of Nairobi.

The approach adopted by the HERANA project broke the development-aid mould in several ways. It brought together a group of funders to support a project that combined a number of activities aimed at strengthening capacity in higher education studies; it sought to study a selected group of flagship universities across Africa rather than just one university or several universities in one country; it aimed to collect and share empirical data on the performance of the universities; it adopted a network approach, not only connecting the universities to one another but also to expertise from the continent and globally; and, unusually, it was designed so that research and advocacy were integrated, instead of the advocacy function being framed as an appendix to the core research project.

This advocacy-by-design concept also played an important role in the establishment of University World News, which has, over the years, covered many of the significant meetings and findings of HERANA.

HERANA Phase One (2007-10) developed a theoretical framework based on Manuel Castells’ proposition that there are four historically determined and contradictory university functions: producing values and social legitimation; selecting elites; training the labour force; and producing new knowledge. At a systemic level, the HERANA project sought to establish how national and institutional stakeholders conceptualise the role of higher education and of universities in development.

Within this framework, HERANA focused on the notions of: a strong academic core within the university; connectedness among higher education stakeholders; and national pacts on the roles that should be adopted by universities in development. A set of empirical indicators were produced; and interviews were conducted with key officials in relevant government departments such as those overseeing education, economic development and human resource planning, as well as with administrative and academic leaders at the universities.

The universities themselves completed a first round of data collection. The outcome was several reports and two anchor publications: Universities and Economic Development in Africa and An Empirical Overview of Eight Flagship Universities in Africa: 2001-2011.

The three key findings relating to the main components of the study were, first, that there was a lack of clarity and agreement (a pact) about national development models and the roles of the higher education sector in these at both central government and university levels – although awareness has increased, particularly at the government level, about the importance of universities in the context of the global knowledge economy.

Second, it was found that research production at the eight universities was not strong enough to enable them to build on their traditional undergraduate teaching roles and make a sustainable, comprehensive contribution to development through new knowledge production. A number of universities had manageable student-staff ratios and adequately qualified staff but lacked sufficient funds for staff to engage in research. In addition, the incentive regimes for research did not support knowledge production.

Third, in none of the countries in which the universities are located was there a coordinated effort among the government, external stakeholders and universities to strengthen the contributions that the universities could make to development in a systematic way. Although each of the universities could boast exemplary development projects connected strongly to external stakeholders and to strengthening the academic core, they needed to increase the number and size of such projects to achieve a more significant developmental impact.

From flagship to research universities

Towards the end of HERANA Phase One, the focus shifted away from higher education and development towards an emphasis on the universities themselves, and the discourse shifted away from ‘flagship’ towards ‘research-intensive’ in line with international discussions about the nomenclature for higher education institutions. After 2009, this shift was also reflected among the universities themselves, with all eight of them releasing new or revised strategic plans that reflected a shift towards research, knowledge production and the knowledge economy.

HERANA Phase Two (2010-13) focused more on data collection and analysis in order to foster a better understanding of the institutions and placed less emphasis on the universities’ links to development and governance.

This phase also produced most of the materials for the 2014 book Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education.

This volume, which was launched at the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal, in 2015, reflected on the roles of universities and the performance of the eight participating institutions, with particular reference to research outputs; studies on incentives and knowledge production; the roles of national councils and commissions; the functions of science councils; student engagement and citizen competences; and university-community engagement and interconnectedness.

The goal of the third and final phase of the HERANA project (2014-17) was to support the institutionalisation of six years of capacity building in data collection within the universities and to link this to the promotion of policies enhancing the universities’ knowledge-production capabilities through enrolling and graduating more PhDs, increasing the proportion of staff with doctorates and increasing research outputs.

More broadly, HERANA Phase Three aimed to support the development of a group of research-intensive universities as a model for other countries on the continent.

The third phase of the project used as its starting point the proposition that research universities in low- and middle-income countries have a crucial role to play in developing differentiated, effective academic systems, thus helping their countries to join the global knowledge society and compete with sophisticated knowledge economies. While research universities in the developing world have not yet climbed to the top of the global rankings, they are important in their countries and regions and are steadily improving their reputations and competitiveness on the international stage.

The two assumptions that underpinned HERANA’s aim to strengthen knowledge production were, first, that each institution must have empirical data to inform its strategic planning and institutional reform strategies; and, second, that both input and output variables are important to improve knowledge production.

The data from the third phase of the project, published recently in An Empirical Overview of Emerging Research Universities in Africa 2001-2015, shows that all the HERANA universities registered an increase in enrolments, with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and the University of Ghana growing the fastest.

Furthermore, with the exception of the University of Nairobi and the University of Ghana, the percentage of permanent academics with doctorates increased; and, with the exception of Eduardo Mondlane University and the University of Mauritius, the number of doctoral graduates also increased significantly. In addition, research outputs have risen dramatically at all eight universities, albeit from a low base in most cases.

Less positive is that, with the exception of the University of Cape Town and the University of Nairobi, the universities have remained largely undergraduate, teaching institutions. Student enrolments have grown almost twice as fast as academic staff numbers.

In addition, while there has been growth in the numbers of doctoral graduates and in research outputs, the performance among the universities remains uneven. For example, the University of Cape Town produced in one year as many PhDs as all the other universities combined. It also produced twice as many publications as were produced by the other seven bodies.

In other words, despite increased enrolments and the rising number of doctoral graduates and research outputs, these universities are not yet producing new knowledge at a level that would enable them to compete as equals on global higher education tables. In addition to the University of Cape Town, the two HERANA universities that showed the most improvement on the journey to becoming research universities were Makerere University and the University of Ghana (Legon).

Lessons from HERANA

Five important lessons emerged from the 10-year HERANA project, which will be discussed in some detail in a forthcoming book, Enhancing the Research Orientation of Universities in Africa: Caught between institutional, national and global agendas, to be published by African Minds. First, there are a number of competing notions at the global, national and institutional levels about the role that universities should play in society, particularly in terms of development.

While the colonial powers saw the university mainly as a site for mid-level professional and-or administrative training, Africa’s newly independent states saw public universities as both status symbols and providers of training for the new professional class. The role of this class was to administer and provide services in the education and health sectors and within government. Although the developmental role of the new states, contributing to innovation and economic growth, was emphasised rhetorically, it was not actively promoted, partly because most countries lacked a widely agreed model for development.

Second, little government support was offered to help the HERANA flagship universities to realise their common aspiration to become research-led institutions. All the universities in the study sought to break away from the dominant post-liberation notion that the main functions of universities are elite selection and undergraduate teaching and become research-intensive institutions.

However, their governments, most of which claim to be embracing the knowledge economy, failed to provide supportive policies and additional research funding to enable a better balance between research and teaching. At the final HERANA forum held in 2016, a consensus emerged that the universities could not become research-intensive without supportive national government policies and an appropriate funding framework.

Third, the future development of research universities in Africa will have to be more evidence-driven. The HERANA project has made a major start to this process by developing some capacity in data collection at each of the participating universities and by developing a common data framework.

However, during the HERANA forums it became clear that while there had been considerable improvement in the data-collection capacity at the institutions, as well as an increase in the use of data, the institutionalisation of data – and especially the centralisation and analysis of data – still posed considerable challenges. In this regard, improving capacity has not necessarily entailed institutionalising data collection and use in evidence-based planning.

Fourth, it was found that donor funding tends to target projects rather than institutions, despite the rhetorical emphasis on capacity building among the donor community. In addition, such funding is not distributed through open, competitive, peer-reviewed processes, nor are the academics who are funded necessarily required to publish. As a result, most donor-funded projects bear a greater resemblance to consultancy activities than academic research projects.

The project-based and parochial nature of the funding – up to 80% of such income is donated on the basis of the donor’s own programmes and ideologies – makes it difficult for African universities to realise their institutional research strategies.

Fifth, African higher education systems generally remain undifferentiated and decoupled from national developmental goals in the absence of national pacts defining their missions. The challenge for higher education systems is to develop universities that will be strong and dynamic enough to withstand the tensions inherent in their contradictory functions, while at the same time being able to respond to what they see as their specific mission at any given moment in the history of the system.

The fulfilment of different functions cannot be resolved within individual universities alone. Ideally, they need to be distributed throughout a system, with particular institutional types undertaking different combinations of functions. The HERANA study of eight research-orientated universities in Africa and a comparative study of three systems in Finland, South Korea and North Carolina in the United States which have successfully linked higher education to development provided empirical evidence for this assertion.

In 2015 former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan told the African Higher Education Summit: “Governing without data is like driving without a dashboard.” The development of research universities in Africa will have to be more evidence-driven and the HERANA project has made a significant contribution to starting this process.

The HERANA project may also be credited with contributing to the launch of the African Research Universities Alliance, a network of 16 leading higher education institutions that aims to strengthen these bodies through capacity-building and through the establishment of a critical mass that can support their knowledge production. However, further empirical evidence on the complex social and political dynamics of research governance in Africa needs to be obtained to map the future and support the establishment of research-intensive universities on the continent.

Dr Nico Cloete is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET); extraordinary professor at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP) at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and guest professor, University of Oslo, Norway. He is also on the board of University World News – Africa. François van Schalkwyk is a researcher at CHET and a doctoral candidate at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, host of SciSTIP, in South Africa.