Lack of data derails the planning and growth of universities

A lack of reliable data across Africa has weakened policies to improve higher education across the continent, development experts argue.

Although several local development initiatives are trying to improve the flow of useful statistics, they say the data problem is compromising the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, or SDG 4, to leave no one behind in tertiary education by 2030.

Hervé Bernard, head of the social and inclusion division at Humanity & Inclusion (previously Handicap International), an international federation based in Lyon, France, said the lack of data is “the main issue in Africa” that is restricting development in education.

According to Bernard, universities can say they have the capacity to welcome disabled students, for instance, but they do not because they may not be aware of what the realities are or they do not know how to collect the data. Therefore, it is impossible to “justify” the need for investment.

A paper commissioned for the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report: Inclusion and Education, published by UNESCO, agreed with this view, highlighting that, despite “data and methodological limitations”, “there is strong and overwhelming evidence of acute inequalities” in terms of “socio-economic origin, gender, minority status, and disability” regarding higher education inclusion in Africa.

Academia could play a key role here. But, historically, African countries, except South Africa, have sometimes set up independent research entities (occasionally with international funding), away from universities, to support their development ideals.

However, overall, “the involvement of the state and other actors in supporting and promoting research, especially university-based research, has been very limited”, according to the Ghana-based African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

Money-minded research

To Abel Kinyondo, a lecturer in the department of economics and geography at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and co-author of the 2018 paper ‘Poor Quality of Data in Africa: What Are the Issues?’, published by the academic journal Politics & Policy, the root of the issue is lack of funding.

“Most African universities,” like African governments, “are underfunded, and endowment funds from philanthropists usually go to Western researchers, who can, therefore, decide “what kind of research to do,” he told University World News.

Since many universities “depend on donor-funded money” and professors are underpaid, added Kinyondo, they agree to do on-demand research to earn more, but such reliability on consulting work is “killing research culture” and “freedom of thinking”.

Instead of investigating African problems, such as “diseases that have been forgotten elsewhere in the world” but are still present on the continent and thinking about solutions for “the betterment of the community”, a consultant “comes with what he thinks is the problem”, the methodology and the “title to take”.

“They are almost using you as a rubber stamp” to give their studies more credibility and often even require “collaborating research” with Western universities, whose researchers will analyse data and write reports, in what he called a “colonial” projection into thinking.

The former director of strategic research at the Tanzanian independent research institution Research on Poverty Alleviation advocates a “change of mindset” from the top political leaders on the continent, since African governments have a history of spending on poorly conceived headline development projects and “big salaries for politicians” rather than on research.

Political elites do not understand that “we cannot live without research and development” that delivers accurate socio-economic data.

He argued that South Africa, some Maghreb countries, Singapore and South Korea are better developed because they have been investing more in education and research.

Small steps, an enormous difference

Björn Hassler, the technical director of EdTech Hub, an international research partnership focusing on technology used in education, added that lecturers in Africa “often have huge teaching loads” and no time to write grant applications, while Western researchers often benefit from “special business development units” tasked with securing research funding.

Furthermore, he noted that, unlike other disciplines, often education researchers publish papers without data, making it “harder to do replication studies” in Africa.

Hassler argued that, while African governments are often blamed, many project implementers and donors also fail to disclose “rigorous data” about work, which can stymie the opportunity to launch follow up-studies and continue where the previous programmes left off.

The management of data needs to be improved, he said, such as handling data that might impact on privacy rights. He suggested the creation of a security-protected data clearinghouse where researchers would be helped to assess, utilise and publish data, having received guidance on ethical and privacy issues.

This would help all researchers, including African researchers, to use such data, and increase their research outputs, he said.

In the meantime, EdTech Hub is “offering professional development to African researchers” in how to analyse education data, and it participates in the Africa-focused Unlocking Data initiative “to promote the sharing of data”, said Hassler.

This specialist in sustainable educational improvements in Sub-Saharan Africa stressed that there are “plenty of options” to share data online, such as via the Humanitarian Data Exchange, run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Other resources include Zenodo, a multidisciplinary open data repository funded by the European Union (EU); and The Netherlands-based Radboud University’s Global Data Lab.

But, for now, comparing countries, Hassler finds that some countries have better datasets than others. For example, Sierra Leone and Tanzania are undertaking significant work.

Besides, said Hassler, who is also director of the education consultancy Open Development & Education, inexpensive “small changes” towards having disaggregated data in terms of students’ language or gender, among other indicators, could have a significant impact on improving our understanding of student learning.

“Data collection is costly, but sometimes there are unexplored opportunities,” he added.

Data sustains the whole HE system

To succeed in such work, universities must have “an established institutionalised process of collecting data” to assess their performances and challenges, including in terms of “diversity”, to “take decisions” and “to make projections”, avoiding “preferences”, said Gerald Ouma, the director of institutional planning at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Ouma sees “a big challenge” because “many countries in the continent do not have a higher education management information system,” like South Africa, with data that is “audited for accuracy, completeness and validity”.

In Kenya, he said, when the government wants to know something, they send “a request to the universities”, whose staff “generally give the data depending on what they suspect the government is going to do with that information”, and what can be more beneficial for them.

“Even within universities ... you end up getting different versions of the truth,” he said, explaining that sometimes the reason is a lack of shared understanding of concepts, such as the definition of a ‘full-time lecturer’.

Some African countries have some reliable data scattered among different government offices, but, except for the financial audits of tertiary education institutions, much information is inaccurate, he said.

Analysing higher education data at a regional level is even harder and requires negotiation and a clear shared understanding of concepts, he added.

Ouma does see potential solutions within organisations that have the potential to create African databases, such as the Ghana-based Association of African Universities and the education desk at the African Union.

Besides, he added, ARUA has 16 entities collaborating to enhance the quality of African research which are now collecting information about research productivity and the number of postgraduate students and research partnerships, among other indicators. Such data will be useful to improve the overall research in the continent, said Ouma.

Inclusion goals

How might such data boost access to African higher education in line with the SDGs? Ouma said it can, but researchers need to show cultural and political sensitivity.

In some instances, it “may not be possible to go into the nitty-gritty detail” because researchers need to consider whether data subjects are being truthful – even about race. Is “everybody who says [s/he] is black African [actually] black African”?

And will “the political-cultural context in some countries ... permit” the collection of certain private data and are “people comfortable to provide that information”?

Hassler said the international community needs to make sure that “foundational literacy and numeracy is achieved by every child in Africa”. He added: “Better data, means better understanding and better interventions and, therefore, faster progress towards universal foundational literacy and numeracy.”

Camilla Rocca, the director of research at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an entity focused on defining, assessing, and enhancing governance and leadership in Africa based in the United Kingdom and Senegal, said that the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) “highlights a substantial weakness in vital statistics and civil registration capacity, meaning that countries are driving blind in public service delivery”.

She stressed, for example: “One in every two children in Sub-Saharan Africa is not registered at birth.”

“There is still a dearth of proxies [benchmark invariables for comparing statistics] measuring how countries are performing in providing their citizens with tertiary education,” and less available data in higher education compared to other levels of education, she noted. “Only 21 African countries (out of 54) meet the IIAG variable selection inclusion criteria for tertiary education enrolment.”

Rocca added some potential paths to solve the “complex” issue of getting better data for tertiary education including “better equipping, funding and staffing national statistical offices” and boosting data demand by creating “positive narratives around data”.

Other African initiatives are trying to change the status quo. For example, the South Africa-based Africa Evidence Network, a group of 3,788 researchers and professionals promoting the use of evidence in policymaking; the Senegal-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, which is a scientific community founded by African researchers keen to shape narratives aiding socio-economic change in Africa; and the Ghana-based survey research network Afrobarometer, that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economy and society, including citizens’ policy preferences on boosting education.

With such widespread and comprehensive understanding of the problems posed by weak statistical analysis in Africa, and the extent of initiatives and plans to tackle the problem, the potential for creating solid data-based African reforms is becoming more viable.