How Africa is tackling ‘next generation’ fears in academia

Africa’s future academics must be found, developed, nurtured and retained. Shutterstock

Foundation essay: Our foundation essays are longer than usual and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

There is anxiety in many quarters about a shortage of academics in Africa’s universities. These worries have led to a spate of programs to identify, develop and retain a “next generation” of scholars for the continent. Many of these initiatives are being driven by international agencies. But their success actually depends on local commitments by governments, institutions and individual academics.

To understand efforts to build a “next generation” it is important to first examine why Africa’s universities are facing this problem.

What’s holding Africa back?

Despite their inevitable differences, African universities have several shared challenges. These include:

  • limited government funding;

  • a rapid growth in undergraduate enrolments;

  • low postgraduate enrolments and graduation rates;

  • a general shortage of academic staff, and particularly those who hold PhDs; and

  • relatively limited production of research.

Africa’s brain drain and limited research output is rooted in what Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji calls “extroversion”. This describes the dependence of African scholars on the intellectual resources of the global north. It is a phenomenon that originated in the colonial era and persists today.

The continent is seen as a source of empirical data and a site for the application of research findings rather than for the apex of academic work – theory-building. African academics also experience imbalances and exploitation in international partnerships.

Africa has many intellectuals and rich traditions of indigenous knowledge. Despite this, the continent has made a limited impact on global theory or research. This is consistent with global trends. Theory from the global south is widely ignored by the global north.

Research – as measured by criteria set by academic institutions and publishers in the global North – is not a high priority in African universities. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa. The region’s share of global research output amounted to just 0.72% in 2012. And most of it emanated from South Africa.

Turning the tide – slowly

Some work is being done in different areas to improve the situation.

Overseas scholarship programs have helped to increase the number of African doctoral graduates. The problem comes once they return to the continent. Many PhD graduates from these programs are overloaded with teaching and administration by older colleagues who resent their success. In many cases their universities don’t have institutional research cultures or decent physical infrastructure. These frustrations can drive bright young academics out of the space entirely.

In terms of research and collaboration, respect for higher education is growing among international agencies and African governments. Researchers from the global North have realised that they need strong research partners in viable African universities. These partnerships help to attract international funding and encourage the best possible research about problems that affect both the world and the continent.

Several foundations have provided extensive funding for “next generation” programs in Africa. The Association of Commonwealth Universities recently introduced an innovative blended learning program called STARS to support early career researchers.

STARS is being piloted at universities in, among others, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa. It will be made available across the developing world through a creative commons licence by late 2016.

The topics are the standard fare of researcher development programs: how to write journal articles or grant proposals, or manage research projects. The difference is that each module is authored and presented by a researcher from an African institution. The material draws on issues and examples relevant to the continent.

Another boost for research was the formation in March 2015 of the African Research Universities Alliance. It aims to “build African research excellence as a ‘vital precondition’ for the continent to develop and exert control over its future”. Its 15 members include universities from Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa.

South Africa’s story

South Africa’s quest for a “next generation” has a slightly different dynamic. It needs young academics who can compete internationally – and who are representative of all the country’s population groups. This comes after decades of racial exclusion and inequality entrenched by the apartheid government.

It won’t be a quick process: 48% of all permanent academics and 70% of professors are white. That’s a sharp contrast with the 91% of the population and 80% of public higher education students who are black – African, Coloured and Indian.

The South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has created 125 new, permanent lectureships for mainly black “potential academics” through its New Generation of Academics Program. These scholars will be able to study for their masters or doctoral degrees while being fully paid. They will also be paired with mentors, given funding to attend conferences and must participate in researcher development initiatives.

The department is also spending millions on Research Development Grants which are given to all universities to build the research capacity of their academic staff. The highest allocations are being made to some historically disadvantaged institutions with very poor research profiles.

However, many of these institutions are facing a conundrum. They have the money to build their research capacity but lack the research, management and supervisory capacity to spend it appropriately. For this reason universities with strong research traditions are required to collaborate with others that are less research productive.

The initiatives which DHET suggests are similar to those which my own university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), has offered since 2003 in its Emerging Researcher Program. The program has used funding from the university, government and international foundations to provide varying levels of support to more than 600 academics to date.

The program offers mentoring, seminars, writing workshops and small, targeted research grants. It uses retired and current senior academics. It claims some credit for the fact that between 2003 and 2014 publication output per UCT academic increased by nearly 80% and weighted research output, which includes masters and doctoral graduations, increased by 55%. In 2003 only 40% of UCT had PhDs. By 2014 the proportion had reached 67%, the highest in the country while the national average was 39%.

Money isn’t all that counts

All these initiatives suggest that universities in Africa will not crack the “next generation” problem without substantial funding. While the importance of funding should not be underestimated, it will not bring about long-lasting change without changes in institutional and individual mindsets.

Senior academics must realise that the future of academia might depend on their support for young academics who might not share their cultural backgrounds. Some of the newcomers might be better qualified than their seniors – and so present a threat. Others will be so inexperienced they might be dismissed as a potential waste of time.

Young academics need to take responsibility for their own development, and use the opportunities provided by centralised and faculty programs to engage with other early career researchers and form their own support networks and lobby groups.

Institutions need to be actively involved in the shaping of proposals to ensure that international programs are in tune with local needs and conditions. The shortage of “next generation” academics is a long-standing problem. It won’t disappear without very concerted efforts.