NES COMMENTARY. No.18 : Challenges and Opportunities for Building a Research University to Support Developmental Universities, communities, societies and economies in Ethiopia – Network of Ethiopian Scholars (NES)

May 24th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Inspiring quotes!

« In verity, an Independent world, Created out of pure intelligence. » William Wordsworth : English Poet (1770-1850)

“If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be research.” Albert Einstein (1879-1955) (more…)

Inspiring quotes!

« In verity, an Independent world, Created out of pure intelligence. » William Wordsworth : English Poet (1770-1850)

“If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be research.” Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“Scientific research consists in seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.” Anonymous

1. Introduction

Every poor country goes invariably for building a national airline. Rarely do the power–persons who happen to rule poor countries think in terms of the enormous value it offers by establishing world -class research universities. Very often those in power fear the research process that produces knowledge with critical thinking, open scientific inquiry, innovation and creativity and the fearless search for truth; and, conversely, those in the knowledge world, find it tedious to deal with such restraining power to free scientific inquiry. They crave for an environment of freedom to stimulate creative scientific inquiry unrestrained by any external constraint except the limits to knowing and revelation. If they do not find such an unstrained environment at home, they wander to find free environments to feed their creativities and free enquiry driven by curiosities elsewhere much to the cost of the society that brought them up and educated them. POWER THAT FEARS KNOWLEDGE, AND KNOWLEDGE THAT REFUSES TO SURRENDER TO SUCH POWER together HAVE PREVENTED ALL THOSE WHO DARE TO DO AND CAN DO BY ESTABLISHING AT LEAST ONE RESEARCH UNIVERSITY IN THE RELATIVELY POORER COUNTRIES of the world from venturing to doing so!

A research university requires a research environment to succeed. The question is whether a university that is interfered heavily by the state, and that also serves literally as a state organ, and is equally perceived and feared to be run by people not seen as able to show independence from state power, as indeed it seems to be very often the case in many African countries, can that university ever truly develop into a world class research university? That is indeed an important question.

That in our country, Ethiopia, to come across some academics that genuinely think and work to bring about the creation of a research university at home is indeed heart-warming. The ambition to create thousands of PhDs is welcome. It is very well to dream, but reality is complex and change is not easy to bring about by starting from a low base.

2. The Essential Conditions Necessary for Building a Research University

What is not very clear is the understanding of whether a real research university can emerge with the existing political, economic, cultural and social environments as they are now. Equally important how might a first class research university emerge? Is it by changing an existing university and re-inventing it? Is it by merging existing universities and institutes and by adding new dimension to them? Is it by creating a radically new Science, Technology University like the kind the Nelson Mandela Institution (NMI) established in 2007 called the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja with the objective of networking institutes of science and technology and centres of excellence across the continent?

Ideally starting fresh with a premier research university like that envisaged by the Nelson Mandela Institution stands a much better chance than trying to deal with the manifold problems of universities that are heavily teaching based with a concentration of undergraduate students. One of the key conditions for a research university is an intake of students for the development of post-graduate research training including doctoral and post-doctoral work. If a university has large numbers of undergraduate students, it is more likely to be more a teaching- based rather than a research-based institution.

Another critical necessary condition for building a research university is thus the existence of a threshold of faculty and graduate students that can sustain an active research culture and environment.

An equally important necessary condition is securing sustainable resources that will not be subjected to changing political priorities by equally changing governments and policy choices.

Last but not least is the existence of an enhancing and conducive governance system that can stimulate autonomy, academic freedom, independent leadership, strategic vision, innovation, creativity by fostering an environment and culture for research excellence and knowledge production.

Today many countries create knowledge and learning foundation to augment national wealth. Academic capital or knowledge is now a necessary condition for making and creating the wealth of nations. Those that do not build it well have no option but to remain dependent on others for knowledge. It costs dearly not to have knowledge. Whenever a country faces emergency, if it has built up knowledge, it will be able to deploy such knowledge from its own domestic contexts. If it does not have the knowledge, it goes to borrow it from elsewhere. There is thus an important reason why knowledge creation through research universities is critical for a country, people, nation, community, economy, society and politics.

3. Setting Aside Misconceptions on Research Universities for Africa

Higher education has often been seen as a luxury or even a ‘white elephant’ in poor countries. Knowledge bearers are often suspected to be no more than self-interested and distinct communities who use education to acquire power and money. In radically unequal societies where the class, social, ethnic, ideological and regional cleavages are sharp, and inequalities are deeply rooted and aggravated by growing divisions and disparities, it is very likely that those with knowledge belong to those who have rather those who do not have, who feel socially excluded and marginal. Some, amongst which could be those with weak moral and civic citizenship sense, may flaunt opulence whilst the many have difficulty surviving. It may thus appear that spending more on building the knowledge base of society may be a misguided venture. In fact, such unflattering considerations have been used to de-legitimising universities in Africa and more broadly countries that went through the process of structural adjustment. Sadly, this has deprived countries from relying on their universities to create a system of research based- higher education and human resource development.

Whilst these issues are important, they do not provide sufficient argument for countries to refrain from taking seriously the matter of building their science, technology and innovation capacity as part and parcel of national strategies and missions to create capacitated individuals, peoples, economies and societies. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it is precisely because of poverty that knowledge must be created, acquired and used to ‘make poverty’ history.

Actions motivated to help the poor with good intentions may paradoxically create long term development problems. Instead of trying to adjust knowledge and universities to the situation of poverty, it is infinitely better and wiser to think of how knowledge can be created by conceptualising a nation’s higher education and university system as capability generating innovative and experiment-laden institutions with missions of learning to learn as the core driving engine of the knowledge creation enterprise and national research system.

In reality, what is needed finally is the innovative research university to create the innovative individual, household, economy and society by centring research capacity, productivity and research based education for training and the creation of knowledge.

4. Dealing with the Donorship Problem!

A research university at least one that is preeminent is needed in every country in order to produce research capable skilled people that can be easily deployed in every part of the country to serve communities, developmental universities, society and the economy. When a nation confronts problems, the worst thing that can happen is not to have a domestically generated knowledge base and force to tackle any disaster confronting it. If a country is in a situation where it has to look for others to deal with its problems, it has put itself in a disadvantageous situation. There is thus very good reason why a research university, producing the best and the most capable researchers and scientists, is necessary for any poor country. Every poor country must have the right to think through and find solutions to its problems. It has even more the obligation to build the ability to build institutions of higher learning, research and knowledge to help it think through and solve problems.

The major challenges for starting a preeminent or world-class research university for poor countries are varied. For a long time the debate on higher education has not recognised, and we cannot say it has fully recognised now, that poor countries should or can create an ‘Ivy League’ type, USA’ or ‘the Russell Group, UK’ type universities. For example, for a long time after independence Gambia did not have even a university, let alone a research university.

The second intractable difficulty is national priority. The idea of building a research university has not been a national priority for many low income countries. Here it is a question of getting national politics right to support research and higher education.

The third difficulty is related to the problem of control and regulation of the university. Many poor countries ended up making the university as part of the civil service rather than an autonomously governed learning, training and research entity. This has severely constrained what a university can achieve.

The fourth difficulty is related to finance. Very often national universities are funded by donors and departments are fragmented depending on who the funder is. Donorship has dominated over national ownership. Alternative sources such as public budget resources, endowments, tuition fees and research grants have been used by the successful research universities to finance research. The donor aid system is likely to make the countries dependent rather than finding for themselves resourceful ways to build national institutions. The creation of a world class research university in a low income country is a great national achievement to help it build and spread developmental universities very much like the US land grant colleges connected to the communities and farmers in America that did much to transform agriculture in the USA.

In Ethiopia the research university must be organised with an eye to feed and build developmental universities that can diffuse knowledge to change the agrarian landscape of the country. Successive statistics report that the livelihood of 86% of Ethiopians is either connected or dependent on farming. The technology of farming has not changed from time immemorial for the vast majority of peasants. Whilst so many people live off agriculture, the country can hardly feed itself. Those countries with less number of people in agriculture feed themselves. The rate of return from agriculture is not like manufacture or services. It has an economy of decreasing returns not the economy of increasing returns of manufacture and services.

A model of financing research that is not heavily donorised is necessary to sustain both the concept and reality of building a research university. Donors can contribute, but they must not take the lead through financing such an important national treasure- as establishing a first class research university. In a situation in many poor economies when the university is donrised, the state is donorised and even business is being supported by donors through private –led investment initiatives, it is critical that a research university is funded mainly by sources that can sustain the effort without subjecting it to donors’ conditionalities and possible withdrawals. Any donor help for the research university is a problem. If donors have to be involved the concept that should be used is donors with rather than for the country to establish the research university. An application of this concept was used by the Globelics network. (See, )

Another formula is to attract one donor with a stake in the creation of the research university very much like the nation itself. Ethiopia has a very good chance to work with Sweden, as Sweden has continued to engage with Ethiopia regardless of what type of politics came to dominate Ethiopian public life. If the donors are too many, it leads to all kinds of problems and may not necessarily yield the intended results. India, China and others in building strong research universities did not invite all sorts of donors. They did it differently. China attracted many Chinese Diasporas.

The key matter is to create a research university as the Knowledge and Research Centre to build a country’s system of innovation. Conversely the strengthening of the system of innovation leads to strengthening of universities that are both research- centred and developmental, which together reinforce each other to help transform through knowledge diffusion people, state, society and economy.

5. Concluding Remark

The idea of building a research university to stimulate development and innovation and transform an agrarian society like Ethiopia is infinitely worthy and welcome.

Whilst the recognition of this necessity and the elaboration of a plan are to be commended, there will be innumerable twists and turns in realising such a goal and ambition.

The main constraints remain the broader anti-democratic environment that can inhibit the free inquiry that must exist if a research university research is to flourish.

The other key problem is the invitation to too many donors. They may end up doing and fragmenting the vision and the work to accomplish a research university.

The other critical problem is related to the lack of soul and heart engagement from the global Diaspora community due to the political cleavages that continue to short- change whatever effort may be exerted to create a research university, by framing it as a national challenge.

Everything is politicised, which means the Diaspora who can contribute a lot but that also criticise existing power will be excluded from contributing to the process of creating a research university. Until those in power refuse to separate their own interest and the nation’s vital interest and they keep conflating their interest as the nation’s interest, it is very unlikely a space of engagement would be created for all that can contribute, to contribute directly.

What it means is that ways must be found using modern technology to continue to engage productively with the learning, innovation, research and knowledge efforts to build not only this or the generations of the future who care and wish to contribute what they can !

Mammo Muchie, Dphil
Coordinator of DIIPER
Research Centre on Development Innovation and IPER and
NRF/DST SARCHI chair holder, TUT, South Africa
Aalborg University
Fibigertraede 2
9220-Aalborg East
Aalborg, Denmark 00-45 9940 9813 00-45 9815 3298

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