What universities in Uganda and Kenya can do to boost research partnerships

Research partnerships can have powerful results. Konstantin Chagin/Shutterstock

Cross-border partnerships can be extremely valuable for universities in Africa. They can provide new revenue streams for institutions. It’s also a good way for institutions to improve their reputations and develop capacity. Partnerships have a broader value, too. They’re a good way to bolster multidisciplinary research that aims to solve complex societal problems.

But they aren’t simple to put together. Partnerships require proper organisation and governance. They must also be relevant to all the institutions and individuals involved.

My colleagues and I wanted to know how universities in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda are dealing with research partnerships. So we conducted a study at six universities – three in each country. We specifically examined the construction and governance of research collaborations at these institutions.

Our findings suggest that there is no “one size fits all” strategy for setting up such partnerships. Instead, each institution takes a different approach, using various institutional and departmental structures. Better, more standardised frameworks are needed especially in Uganda if the country’s universities are to benefit from transnational partnerships.

It may learn from its neighbour in this regard. Kenya’s National Research Fund is proving to be a good champion of such partnerships.

How partnerships happen

The first thing we wanted to know was how transnational partnerships develop among Ugandan and Kenyan universities. This happens in several ways, such as national calls for collaborative research or development initiatives.

Existing personal connections and informal encounters play a fundamental, indispensable role in enabling the initiation and development of sustainable partnerships.

There is a problem, though. Simply put, you can have bright people and great ideas – but without a solid policy framework these collaborations just won’t work in the long term.

Various studies have outlined how important relevant, suitable policy frameworks are for successful research management. This is increasingly true in the context of fierce competition for scarce research funding. Policies also help to manage the growing interdependence of research institutions in a globalised world.

Having a policy framework also allows for coherence, predictability, consistency, and relevance in a university’s approach to external partnerships.

Our results suggest that Kenya is doing well to anchor its research and higher education partnerships in policy – at both the national and institutional levels.

Uganda is lagging behind. It has several policies linked to research collaboration at national level. But universities struggle to implement them.

None of the three Ugandan institutions we studied had partnership policies. This meant they had no framework to govern research collaborations. Collaborators and departments relied on ad hoc memoranda of understanding and agreements. They implemented partnerships on a project by project basis.

Kenya also fared better than Uganda on the governance front. All three Kenyan institutions had established structures and initiatives for running research partnerships. These included international offices, research and outreach units and administrative department units. The universities also employed programme directors or coordinators. Some used school or faculty committees to govern research partnerships.

In Uganda, partnership activities are managed by individuals, concerned departments, ad hoc departmental and university research committees formed to implement particular projects. The universities don’t have independent international or partnership offices. That affects the sustainability of many partnership projects. They grind to a halt or gradually fall apart when the collaborators aren’t able to continue coordinating the projects.

Research champions needed

A lack of adequate funding appears to be the biggest hurdle to both Ugandan and Kenyan universities initiating and implementing successful research partnerships. In some cases, there is funding available but universities and researchers don’t know about this. Many institutions don’t keep up to date databases of research funding opportunities.

Kenya’s government, meanwhile, is making steps towards increasing funding for research projects. This has been facilitated by the recent establishment of the Kenya National Research Fund. The fund is driving a renewed focus on research and innovation activities. It is also encouraging a greater number of both national and transnational partnerships that address national issues such as information technology, agriculture and food security, among others.

In this way, Kenya is opening itself to sustainable partnerships with similar organisations and institutions elsewhere in the world.

By comparison, data suggests that less than 4% of Uganda’s research projects have led to partnerships that address national issues. Perhaps this is partly because Uganda doesn’t have a national research fund or similar champion.

Some positive signs

There are some shifts in the right direction. The universities we studied are beginning to develop relatively more formal organisational structures, policy and regulatory frameworks to guide research partnership and management practices.

This might signal a focused move towards institutionalising partnership initiatives. And that will help universities in Kenya and Uganda to reap the benefits of transnational research collaboration.