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Examining the Universities: Towards Local Capacity Development in Africa

Today I attended the talk given by Nico Cloete at the Center for Studies in Higher Education here at UC Berkeley, on Universities and Economic Development in Africa. It brought to mind some of my experiences as a visiting lecturer during my year in Uganda, so I thought it might be worth talking about local capacity building, sustainability, education, and development.

A quick literature search will lead you to several publications by Cloete, primarily in South Africa, but for work related to this project in particular you should refer directly to the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) page. The main thrust of the research is a study of 8 African universities, each in different countries, all well established.  They developed an empirical model, with the aim of understanding links between national economic/education policies and higher education system development. In addition, they studied systems in Finland, South Korea, and North Carolina, as successful models.

There’s tons of findings and I’ll just highlight a few.  In OECD systems, knowledge is a driver for development, and higher education in particular is important. However out of the eight countries studied (Univ of Botswana, University of Ghana, University of Nairobi, University  of Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane/Mozambique, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University/South Africa, University of Dar es Salaam/Tanzania, Makarere University/Uganda), only Mauritius linked ‘knowledge’ to economic growth. Indeed, Cloete noted, the leadership was occupied by resource allocation issues (classrooms, paying salaries, etc) rather than higher level issues like knowledge.

They then propose a set of quartiles, depending on how 1) central university-generated knowledge  is to government-generated development strategies and 2) how independent and well-connected the university is to national development agendas.  Lack of agreement about development models leads to policy instability.

They then measure a set of academic core indicators: science, engineering, and technology (SET) enrollments (and graduation), postgraduate (i.e. masters degree Americans), academic staff to student ratio, staff with PhDs, funding per academic, doctoral graduates, research publications in ISI peer-reviewed journals. Unsurprisingly, University of Cape Town in South Africa has the strongest numbers – and the highest funding per academic.

I’ll do an aside and comment on these indicators before continuing with my summary. First of all, with any good comparative study, you need to pick and choose measurable indicators on which operationalize your findings. So even if i criticize these findings with respect to my experiences in Uganda – the fact is that any quantitative study will lose nuance next to a well-described qualitative study. I prefer to combine methods. However, it’s still worth giving these indicators a bit of a review.

One of the primary issues I encountered in Uganda with respect to education was unemployment — most students completing either high school or university could not find jobs for months and even years following graduation, despite having made heavy investments in their schooling.  Even those studying information technology or computer science, from the department where I taught, were concerned about employment. My best students expressed concerns that the only places hiring software engineers were aid-funded NGOs and multi-national companies in Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania, that by improving themselves, and looking for jobs that would pay enough to feed their families, they would have to leave Uganda.  For as much as I agree that an increase in SET enrollments would be potentially beneficial to the knowledge economy, I also see in Uganda that there’s a deep need for entrepreneurial and business management development.  We need people to build companies and help manage universities in such a way that will make effective use of the knowledge workers that are already graduating, instead of leaving them to languish in unemployment, or driving the best Ugandans to other countries for employment. I’m not saying that engineers are better off being business majors – but rather I’m recalling that I’ve benefited from being an engineer with a liberal arts degree.  Berkeley has a Management of Technology Certificate program – geared towards engineers who want to take business classes and MBA students who understand technology. In theory the extra certificate makes them more employable – why?

Employment is especially an issue for aspiring PhD students, not just at African universities. Mark Taylor proposes in recent Nature editorial a total reform of the PhD system, starting with matching PhD graduating rates to employability. An article in the same issue details growing demand for PhD graduates in India, China and Singapore, and a sharp decline in Japan. Countries struggle to finance graduate education (the US is no exception, yikes), and where demand is high we see an issue of quantity vs quality. Pursuing PhDs at African universities poses its own problems of employability – reputation and rank make it difficult for graduates to move to and be hired as lecturers at other institutions, especially since movement to other institutions generally entails movement to another country. As a result, some countries have some level of knowledge inbreeding. At Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) where I volunteered as a visiting lecturer for a year, almost all of the staff in my department were graduates of MUST or Makarere. Indeed, many of them were also pursuing PhDs at Makarere simultaneously, some co-enrolled (and partially funded by) European universities. By affiliating their PhD with a European university, they are able to attach more reputation to their publications and degree, potentially increasing their hirability. Likewise, ABD researchers at MUST often listed their affiliation as Makarere in publications, to increase their likelihood of acceptance (ah, the pitfalls of single-blind review). Even when highly educated people do gain positions in academia (sometimes before they complete their dissertations), finances compete with incentives to 1) complete dissertations and 2) support and effectively mentor graduate students.

While primary education is free, the cost of books, uniforms, and meals during school is not. University education is definitely not free, and financing education is the source of significant hardship for many Ugandans. Indeed, I passed billboards daily reminding young women not to submit themselves to ‘sugar daddies’ in exchange for financial support – sometimes in the form of gifts like mobile phones, but also in the form of school fees. What does it take to finance education? As graduate students we might take funding for granted – but in truth there’s a complex network of grants, donations, and in a public school like Berkeley government funding that goes into keeping a school running. Half my education has been funded by alumni grants (Thank You iSchool Alumni!).  Berkeley takes less public funding proportionally than other UC schools (I’ll be lazy and not look up how much), but the budget cuts have definitely had an impact on the school, from furloughs to even departmental restructuring (ah ERG.. oh Operational Excellence…).

Grants, however, are much more within the scope of my awareness and something I’ve thought about with respect to African universities.  First of all – granting institutions: there must be organizations available to dole out money. In the US, big organizations are the government (NSF, NIH, DARPA, etc), various foundations (Carnegie, HP, Gates, Skoll, all depending on area of study), and maybe smaller corporate grants. It is understood that money will go to fund the university (50% overhead?), the principle investigator, graduate students and some reasonable amount of capital expenditure and travel costs, presumably for presenting at conferences. Grants are competitive – they require skill, and reputation, not only in writing and idea generation, but also in understanding the granting organizations, talking to the people administering the grants. In the background, they also require a body of grant reviewers – peers – able and willing to evaluate the proposals. How does this translate to Africa? For the continent and/or for each country there needs to be granting organizations. However – what are expectations in terms of grant writing capabilities?  I’ve reviewed a number of initial grant proposals coming from professors at various universities in Ghana and Uganda.  They lacked complete budgets, solid research frameworks/methodologies, and have insufficient details about partnering organization’s role in the research, instead listing a who’s who list of credits in an attempt to seem more valid. I notice that out of the proposals from African universities that do get accepted, they have often been put forth by lecturers/professors educated in non-African universities. Perhaps in providing better mentors for Ugandan PhD students, we can also provide them will the skills to write effective grant proposals. Although if their current mentors are not writing effective grant proposals, we may have a chicken and egg problem. Not to generalize, however — both Makarere and MUST do write many successful grants. Some of the credit goes to partnerships with OECD universities like the University of Oslo, which has a joint Masters program with Makarere, or the Harvard-Makarere-MUST AIDS research program run by David Bangsberg. For as much as I would like to see the growth of local granting organizations, I’ve also seen directly how these universities have benefited from the long relationships entailed by international cross-institutional collaboration.  And it’s not just a one-way relationship – through these collaborations, the OECD universities have access to publishable longitudinal data, to top researchers from the pool of students in Uganda, and to local expertise much more familiar with the existing context than they. The NSF CNIC and PIRE awards are both good potential sources of funding for US universities seeking to set up such collaborations (but still fiercely competitive).

Coming back to the question of the African university and its role in development, I’ll also comment on the metric of ISI peer-reviewed journals. While I think it’s an important metric, I have noticed that in order to claim to be doing ‘valid’ and ‘relevant’ research, many great researchers have veered away from problems relevant to their own countries and onto more esoteric topics, such as how to secure a network from botnet attacks (random choice, not a true example, actually possibly relevant now).  Probably this is the case more in computer science, where our journals are less relevant, our prestigious conference papers are not in the ISI, but are peer-reviewed, and Information Technology and International Development, the journal that does encourage publication of computer science research targeting development, is not yet ISI rated, possibly because it is too young? Thus while I do think measurement of peer-reviewed publications is important, there are clear weaknesses with the ISI metric, and specific weaknesses between the link between ISI journals and development goals. Yes, general knowledge is beneficial – however if those benefits are not going back into Africa, and there is no clear understanding of the value of research in all fields in/for development (including ICTs and development), then growing the university will result in more brain drain.

One of the things I loved most about teaching at MUST (besides my students and my fellow lecturers) was the university’s focus on community development.  The largest lecture hall on campus was in the Development Studies department, and every first year was required to take a course in the department.  Medical students, rather than only practicing in the confines of the hospital, tested their knowledge by running outreaches in local villages. The Faculty of Computer Science (my department) taught computer skills classes to the local police force, and ran outreaches to the primary schools, specifically aimed towards encouraging girls to study science and engineering. Not-quite-urban, MUST’s location in Mbarara gave the university closer ties to the local community and surrounding villages.  And yet, the university still has a long way to go. I arrived, and was saddled with a class of 220 students, a one-paragraph course summary, and no teaching assistants. Over-enrollment is the norm – we couldn’t find a classroom big enough for my class, so I gave two lectures back to back, splitting my class in two. I was somehow expected to be in three different computer labs at once during the lab sessions. One projector was shared for all of the lecturers – which didn’t work when the power went out… every time it rained, which was pretty much every day in the fall. I checked the libraries – for the course topic there was no more than 20 textbooks for the class of 220, and don’t even ask about the Internet. It’s no wonder that people get pre-occupied with resources. What encourages me, however, is the perseverance and dedication of the other lecturers. They continue to work hard on their own PhD research, disappearing over the summers to meet their advisors and make progress on their work, and making a huge difference by being available to teach a generation of students during the school year.

I don’t know whether I could make more of a difference by teaching in an American university and collaborating with an African university, or by moving to Africa and working for a university there. Availability of resources, students, accessibility, everything all seem to be important things to think about.  However I do know that African universities have an important role to play in the development of Africa, and that American (and other OECD) universities can be a part of that role.


  1. melissa says:

    PhD Comics has it’s own opinion on how to get grants… and, well if that’s it case, it explains a lot about why it’s hard to get started: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1431

  2. Andy Dearden says:

    Very thoughtful observations Melissa. It’s a complicated business, but in the end the long term impact of ICTD will be highly dependent on local capacity: and that is about technical skill, innovation, and business skills (and a huge number of other skills). We tried to do some of this (funded by the British Council) in a partnership with Makerere. One challenge we realised is that many of these skills are best learned via problem based learning – but problem based learning is hard to deliver when you have high student-staff ratios.

    I don’t know whether you can make most difference by moving to an African University, or by basing yourself in the US and partnering. But certainly, establishing partnerships is a very imporant part of the jigsaw. Almost certainly more valuable than any single technical ICTD innovation.

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