High hopes to boost university revenue through research

Income from research could help Africa’s universities counter their reduced income because of the pandemic, the general conference of the Association of African Universities (AAU), hosted from 5-8 July, has heard.

This would require investment in research infrastructure, along with exploring other measures, such as creating graduate schools and postdoctoral fellowship programmes, the strengthening of research administration, and establishing university-industry alliances.

More open and distance learning will have to take place, and universities will have to reconsider staff remuneration and governance structures.

Professor Peter Okebukola, president of the Global University Network for Innovation-Africa, told University World News: “The economic impact of COVID-19 has led to a huge reduction in government revenue, on average about 38%, and, hence, also had a direct impact on the funds available to universities.”

Universities have responded by cutting back salaries and laying off employees, especially non-teaching staff, Okebukola said. Governments have likewise cut back on spending by ending education subsidies. This has compromised the quality of university education.

According to The World Bank and UNESCO’s Education Finance Watch 2021 report, the pandemic has led to cuts in both external education aid and internal education budgets in two-thirds of low- and middle-income countries.

Three ways

Okebukola said research can increase universities’ income in at least three ways.

Firstly, products resulting from research can be commercialised. For instance, research leading to the production of a COVID-19 vaccine at Afe Babalola University in Nigeria is yielding huge revenues for the institution.

Secondly, better research can improve a university’s position on ranking lists. This will, in turn, attract more students and ultimately increase revenue from tuition fees.

Thirdly, research could lead to alliances with industry, thereby creating income opportunities for both.

Lucy Heady, CEO of the UK- and Africa-based Education Sub-Saharan Africa, told University World News: “Universities’ research capacities have the potential to be a source of sustainable funding in an unpredictable economy. However, this potential is not fully realised.”

More needs to be done to ensure that global research funds flow directly to African universities and scholars, over timescales that would allow for “genuine academic exploration”, Heady said.

“Such funding would also help to reduce the teaching load per faculty member, [thereby] benefiting both research output and the quality of instruction,” she said.

Enterprise development

The pandemic has had a similar negative impact on Africa’s industrial enterprises. This could also be countered by increased research at universities, said Professor Juma Shabani, the director of the Doctoral School at the University of Burundi and the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa.

He told University World News that research results would aid technology transfer to such enterprises, which could, in turn, boost university revenues.

“This technology transfer process will enable universities and industrial enterprises to generate resources to contribute to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Shabani said.

Research for local needs

Amanda Crowfoot, secretary general of the European University Association in Belgium, told University World News: “The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of universities’ research activities; both at a local level, in terms of focusing on specific topics and the needs of local communities, and at a global level, in terms of collaborating on common challenges.”

“Research is key to both recovery from the pandemic and future resilience, and, therefore, it is crucial to optimise the research potential of African universities.

“It is also important to have support at the political level, such as through strategic partnerships between the African Union and the European Union,” she said.

Additional measures

However, Dr Birgit Schreiber, the vice president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services, warned that it is no simple matter to generate reliable and sustainable funding from research.

“Making research directly linked to income is probably hubristic and overly optimistic. It is not a reliable and, therefore, not a sustainable source of funding,” said Schreiber, who is also a member of the Africa Centre for Transregional Research at Freiburg University in Germany.

Research is a quest for knowledge, not a revenue activity, and it may or may not generate funds, said Schreiber, who is an associate member of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at the South African membership body Universities South Africa.

Instead, she argues, the focus should be on more reliable and sustainable public funding of higher education. “The overall national focus should support education much more than we see at present.

“Block grants per university enrolment need to be increased, as well as the overall commitment to education from governments,” Schreiber suggested.