The power of scholarships in a time of poor research funds

By reaching a higher level of education, scholarship holders increase their chances of appropriate employment and obtaining a leadership position. Therefore, Africa needs to overhaul its higher education systems to foster research in universities, attract quality scholarships and reduce over-reliance on government funding.

This was the verdict of researchers, policy experts, lecturers and education sector investors drawn from across the world who attended the Young Scholars in Africa Conference organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) on 1-3 March in Nairobi, Kenya.

The DAAD conference was geared towards promoting young scholars at universities to become the scientists, lecturers, researchers and professionals of tomorrow. The participants, most of them former recipients of DAAD scholarships, explained ways in which government and private sector players can help overcome the challenges that young African scholars are facing in unleashing their full potential.

To raise the status of Africa’s higher education systems in the global arena, speakers at the conference said there was a need for governments and private financiers to provide seed funding to students to continue with research after attaining their PhDs. This would effectively help them translate research work into publishable work in recognised journals.

“We need to address institutional barriers that hinder the success of early career scientists. Tailoring funding to meet the needs of early career scientists will enable them to attend scientific conferences,” said Professor Axel-Cyrille Ngonga Ngomo, who teaches Data Science at Paderborn University, Paderborn, Germany.

Scholarships and collaboration

To support this demand, DAAD is looking at enhancing scholarships as well as promoting collaborative projects of German universities with partner institutions abroad. This will see more investment going into curriculum development, staff training, addressing the sustainable development goals in teaching and research and creating a stronger link between universities and industry.

According to DAAD President Professor Margret Wintermantel, young academics as future university lecturers, researchers or professionals play a key role in research and the development of education systems.

“In many African countries, however, their numbers are too low to provide the rapidly growing higher education sector with the necessary human resources and to build up adequate research capacities. This is contrary to most countries’ political and economic aspirations to become ‘middle income’ and ‘knowledge societies’ within the foreseeable future,” she told the conference.

The conference heard that African universities needed to offer training and mentoring specific to young scientists, particularly those in fields such as the health and engineering sciences, in order to boost research and development projects.

DAAD, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), hopes to boost staffing capacity in African universities, and beneficiary institutions are usually picked competitively.

Scholarship structure

Referring to DAAD’s announcement earlier this year, Wintermantel said it was changing the structure of its scholarships to universities in East Africa, where the institutions will be required to reserve 20% of places for students from Sub-Saharan African countries, in a bid to boost student mobility and internationalisation of higher education.

The German higher education financier will implement the new measures first in Kenya and Uganda, beginning with the current year’s 2019-20 intake. The trial will be rolled out until 2022.

Data released by DAAD shows that the number of scholarship holders and the additional number of professionals trained in the programme have steadily increased in recent years. For example, the number of newly-awarded scholarships in Sub-Saharan Africa rose from 227 in 2006 to 407 in 2014.

Disadvantaged groups, in particular, benefit from the support offered through the programme.

A little more than 50% of the scholarships in Sub-Saharan Africa went to participants from least developed countries (LDCs) and the percentage of women reached almost 48%.

By reaching a higher level of education, scholarship holders increase their chances of appropriate employment and obtaining a leadership position. In 2014, 19 university networks and the corresponding institutions in the Sub-Saharan region were supported through tuition fees.

A well-developed higher education sector, speakers said, is essential for training the professional and managerial staff that can be highly conducive to the political, economic and social success of developing countries.

Empowerment efforts

Wintermantel said while Africa faces several major challenges in the sector, growing efforts can also be observed across Africa to empower young scholars to pursue academic careers, and to lobby for their needs. “These range from local grassroots initiatives and support networks to international research,” she said.

An increased focus on African higher education will help produce graduates to take on positions of responsibility in development-related areas in teaching and research. This will also promote the participation of women and disadvantaged groups and strengthen the organisational, financial and personnel capacities of the partner institutions.

“Universities will have to look at institutional infrastructure and organisation of their institutions to ensure they are on par with international universities,” said Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, the chairman of the Commission for University Education, Kenya’s higher education regulator, at the conference.

Professor Bitange Ndemo, a former senior Kenya government official and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, said there is a need for African universities to push for stronger collaboration through regional initiatives, government-driven projects and institution-driven initiatives, to raise the profile of the higher education sector.

This should see the development of innovative funding models that make a difference, including increased private sector funding, while at the same time encouraging a change of tack by governments to entice development financial institutions into financing university education, he said.