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Do we have ‘research-intensive universities’ in Africa?

2019-07-26  Staff Reporter

Do we have ‘research-intensive universities’ in Africa?
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Visions and mission statements of universities in Africa and elsewhere normally state what the universities want to become and achieve in future. The carefully crafted and usually ambitious visions and mission statements express the aspirations of universities, outlining their short-term and long-term aims and objectives. Among other desires, universities usually proclaim that they want to become research-intensive universities ultimately.

 It has become prestigious for universities to declare that they aspire to be research-intensive institutions. Universities also claim that innovation is the driver of all their operations.

 So, the two key aspects – ‘research-intensive’ and ‘innovation’ – have become collocates; they are inseparable. 

In some cases when one scrutinises some visions and mission statements of some universities, one finds that it is unclear how the research-intensive university status will be achieved. The fuzziness suggests that either there was some misunderstanding of what a research-intensive university entails, or an oversight on the painstaking efforts that go with the shaping of a research- intensive university. 

The simplest way of describing a research university or a research-intensive university is that research forms the core or centre of such a university. In others words, research is the principal activity of a research university.

 A research university builds a culture of research that is the envy of other higher education institutions. Although a research university may offer both undergraduate degree programmes and research degrees, its main focus will be on research degrees and other forms of research that create new knowledge.

 According to the League of European Research Universities (LERU), “research universities uniquely have the disciplinary breath perennially to re-configure their research efforts to address research needs and opportunities. Basic research should flourish alongside strategic and applied research and professional practice.” 

In addition, the LERU says “research intensive universities that couple world class research and education provide the most efficient means of providing this combination of basic research and research-based education.” Therefore, a research-intensive university focuses on real research and applied research. 

 If we take these descriptions or characteristics of as the yardstick of a research-intensive university, one might ask how feasible it is to have research universities in some of our poor countries in Africa. Without even going far afield in Africa, we can begin by asking whether we can honestly have research-intensive universities in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique - or Southern Africa as a whole. 

My conviction is that we have not yet reached a point where we can seriously talk of true research-intensive universities in these and other African countries. The major reason is that our African universities are under-funded; there is no adequate financing to support the aspirations of our universities.
 Indeed, our universities have attractive visions and missions statements. The creators of these visions and mission statements were men and women with great intellect and visions, but the stumbling block became resources to support their visions. 

State-funded universities have always cried foul concerning budget cuts. Surprisingly, even private universities have not yet shown signs of achieving the research-intensive-university status. Some private universities in Africa are worse off than public universities, yet they charge exorbitant fees. In the final analysis, it seems that both public and private universities in Africa do not have many postgraduate research programmes of high quality, yet this is one crucial requirement for a research-intensive university. While these universities’ undergraduate offerings spread over a gamut of fields of specialisations, they become crippled when it comes to postgraduate research programmes. 

The concept of a research university started in Germany. While there are many examples of research-intensive universities in Europe and America, I want to refer to a few Chinese universities that I have visited recently. 

I have decided to do this for two reasons. First, I want to demystify the notion amongst academics that the best examples always come from Western countries. This is wrong. Second, China’s development since 1949 has been so rapid and outstanding that it now compares favourably to that of the developed world. Our African universities have many lessons to learn from Chinese research-intensive universities which are shining examples of excellence.

I had the privilege of visiting the China University of Communication, North West University of Politics and Law, China University of International Studies, University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of West-Asian and African Studies (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), the China Africa Institute and the China University of Geosciences in Beijing. The level of technological advancement that drives these higher education institutions is superb. There is state-of-the-art equipment that students and academics use in their operations. 

Postgraduate research is heavily funded and supported; students and their supervisors are highly motivated to conduct research. These universities have over the years succeeded in building a strong research culture that has turned them into real research-intensive universities.

There are innovations that benefit society directly. For instance, technological advancement has assisted some universities to take lead in the industrialisation of the country.  It was impressive to learn that agriculture students conduct research with a groups of farmers in order to increase the farmers’ yields of crops. Similar research by students and their supervisors has led to the mechanisation of agriculture. The lives of farmers have greatly improved and in some cases farmers live in block of modern flats similar to the ones in the cities. They have clean piped water and electricity in their homes and they drive to their farms.

While it would appear unattainable for the ordinary University in Africa to become a research-intensive university, there is hope that one day this shall come to pass. Africa has the resources and capable intellectuals who only need funding to motivate them to conduct meaningful research with their postgraduate students.

* Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord.  Email

2019-07-26  Staff Reporter

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