Research universities – The need for a realistic roadmap

Largely because of their role in knowledge creation and dissemination and their concomitant contribution towards the global knowledge economy, the extant literature is replete with arguments in favour of the development of research universities.

However, understanding what a research university is and how to achieve it remains a major challenge in Africa, as many institutions claim to be research universities when they actually are not, and those who wish to set up research universities lack the necessary awareness to become such and-or undermine the key features critical to their establishment.

As Philip Altbach (2004) has aptly commented on the issue of a research university: “Everyone wants one; no one knows what it is; no one knows how to get it.”

The development of research universities in Africa is not beyond possibility, nor is it an alien concept, although their realisation does require us to address certain peculiar challenges.

In Ethiopia, although the calls for the establishment of research universities have intensified over the last few years – manifesting in the form of increased rhetoric, plans and practices – the ambition has been there for a relatively long time.

One of the proposals of the World Bank’s 2003 report on Ethiopian higher education was to develop the country’s flagship Addis Ababa University into a research university, with greater focus on graduate studies. In addition to being taken up – at least in principle – in successive education sector plans, this call has been echoed repeatedly in various fora and by pertinent local and international proposals made since then.

As far back as 2005 there was a call from officials in the ministry of education to establish centres of excellence within the higher education sector, centres that would eventually help individual universities develop into research universities.

And when the initial idea for the establishment of second-generation (newer) Ethiopian universities was conceived, one of the major proposals made, but unfortunately later dropped, was the idea of positioning the universities in terms of their comparative geographical advantage so that some of them might develop into centres of excellence and research universities over time.

Tempering aspirations with reality

The aspirations of local universities themselves have long revolved around becoming research universities, but such aspirations have not necessarily been tempered by reality. Addis Ababa University, for instance, aspires to become ‘among the top 10 pre-eminent African graduate and research universities’, while Bahir Dar similarly seeks to become ‘one of the 10 premier research universities in Africa,’ as respectively stated in their vision statements.

A national conference held in 2015 by the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences was exclusively devoted to the subject and managed to attract a wide range of participants from relevant sectors and institutions. While the importance of the conference in terms of establishing the need for such universities and the benefits that can accrue at a national level were clear, the way in which research universities were to be set up and dealing with the attendant challenges were not debated in any depth.

A recent government education sector plan (2016) gives more emphasis to research and research universities than was the case in similar earlier plans. While relevant in terms of indicating the government’s political will, the plan stops at characterising such universities exclusively in terms of the percentage of PhD staff and students, and it stays mute on other important and distinctive features of research universities.

Furthermore, the government’s decision in 2014 to shift the oversight of the Adama and Addis Ababa Science and Technology Universities from the ministry of education to the ministry of science and technology was, among other motives, dictated by the desire to build research universities. The attempts to distinguish these universities in terms of their admission criteria, programme focus, and staff remuneration (which later became a source of discord within the sector) clearly hint at efforts in the same direction.

However, it is still not clear how these institutions are progressing as research universities or how they are addressing such important concerns as institutional autonomy that are critical to their operation.

All the above are indications that the desire to have research universities has been a longstanding one and it seems to have reached a point where the need is widely shared among government officials and diverse sections of the Ethiopian higher education sector.

Possible answers

However, the mechanism of how best to go about realising this ambition remains unclear, with no reprieve in sight. Hence the next task should be searching for some form of arrangement that would provide the sector with possible answers.

To begin with, the realisation of country-wide ambitions for research universities requires political will and commitment from the government. From the institutions themselves, it requires vision, well-crafted strategic plans, and strong leadership.

The task also calls for an overriding national roadmap that can be used to steer efforts and indicate what is to be done, with what resources, and when.

For the government, the best place to start may thus be to find ways of involving all relevant actors that can contribute to the success of the roadmap. The participation of important bodies such as the Education Strategy Center, ministries of education and of science and technology, other relevant ministries, individual universities and pertinent experts, appears to be indispensible.

The roadmap should also make clear the justifications for having research universities. It should outline the rationale behind the reconfiguring of existing universities and-or the establishment of new ones.

In addition it should quantify the number of research universities to be set up and their governance mechanisms, outline the role distinctions between research universities and other comprehensive universities, set out the allocation of resources and reward systems, the mechanisms of granting autonomy, and the long-term trajectory in terms of sustaining, supporting and tracking achievements.

Local context

While the need for drawing experiences from elsewhere (especially from the developing world) is not denied, an understanding of the local context should dictate the choice of routes, tasks, implementing modalities and time frames.

Once in place, the components of the roadmap should also be incorporated into the national education sector plans so that, as part of the operational elements of the sector, all those responsible will be actively involved in the endorsement and progressive realisation of the envisaged goals through clearly defined responsibilities and commitments.