Tag Archives: higher education

‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Thomson Reuters’ myopic vision of African research capacity

T S Eliot’s damning metaphor for the narrowness of social conventions came to mind when I read Thomson Reuters’ Global Research Report Africa, ostensibly a report on the state of African research, but in fact a very limited analysis based solely on the performance of African countries in the Thomson Reuters ISI journal indexes. I was alerted to this report by University World News, which has now published two totally uncritical articles on Thomson Reuters’ ‘global’ analysis of African research.
This is insidious stuff. The Global Research Report Africa is indeed measuring out the lives of African researchers in coffee spoons, basing itself on an unproblematized assumption that the number of journal articles published and citation analysis of these articles can be an adequate measure (let alone the only measure) of the state of national research systems in Africa. It uses scientific-sounding language to equate these ‘outputs’ – ISI-listed journal articles – with research capacity and then in turn equate this measure with the potential for improved global economic performance for African countries.
The intent of this this report is pretty clear. The report starts off with an explicit statement: it is designed ‘to inform policymakers and others about the landscape and dynamics of the global research base’. Although its concluding remarks have a modest disclaimer, that ‘it would be inappropriate to suggest that the preliminary analysis in this report can provide a clear direction’, nevertheless the intent is again made clear – to ‘help provide a further context to that set by the OECD’s economic reports, while also furnishing background against which to view the pertinent regional dispatches in the UNESCO Science report 2010…’ We should not forget either that the criteria and analysis for the Times Higher Education university rankings are now to be managed by Thomson Reuters. Is the company positioning itself even more strongly as the sole arbiter of scholarly excellence and the sole source of data for the measurement of research development? Continue reading

Scholarly publishing as a transformation issue in South Africa

With the Higher Education Transformation Summit taking place in Cape Town on 22 April, universities have been in a reflective phase, examining their success – or lack of it – in achieving post-apartheid transformation. The report card shows that we are achieving a great deal, but could try harder. There is still a way to go before all our students and academics feel they are in institutions that are really their home.
No-one seems to have noticed the elephant in the room. In all the discussions, I see very little attention being paid to the role that scholarly communication and publication plays in the transformation process. We talk about the demographic profiles of our universities, yet we do not seem to question the communication environment that students and staff are immersed in and the values that are reflected there.
Why is it, for example, that, as the South African Minister of Higher Education and Training , Blade Nzimande, complained at the UNESCO 29th World Conference on Higher Education that ‘there is a gender imbalance throughout higher education systems especially in leadership positions.’ in his keynote address at the Transformation Summit, he picked up on the fact that the average age of academics continues to rise and that there has been a drop in the number of staff under the age of 30? Does the publishing system that is so central in determining who is promoted and rewarded play a role in these demographics? Is this an alien environment for the young scholars that the universities want so badly to attract? Do students and researchers find their own, African, world reflected adequately in the scholarly resources that they have access to? Are the values that our researchers hold reflected in the ways in which they are supported in publishing their research? Continue reading

South African Higher Education Minister weighs in on access to knowledge at UNESCO conference

At the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, a roundtable session on Africa brought Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s new Minister of the new Higher Education Ministry to the fore.

In the official online report on the round table, his speech is reported as follows:

Encouraging the production of indigenous knowledge is indispensable to meet the continent’s development challenges. “The term ‘knowledge society’ means two different things in developed and developing countries: one is the producer and one is the consumer”, said Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, South Africa. Speaking on behalf of the 53-member conference of Education ministers in Africa he delivered some pithy observations on the challenges facing the Second Decade of Education for Africa: lack of access to indigenous knowledge (as “there had been no significant break with the colonial era”); gender imbalance, especially at the leadership level, and the interconnected challenges of gender, racial and ethnic discrimination.

Mr Nzimande criticized the overemphasis on basic education to the detriment of higher education. “Education must not be approached in an atomized or fragmented manner but in a holistic manner”. While he believed that academic freedom was under threat, and that governments needed to guarantee it, responsibility for academic freedom went both ways and institutions had to be accountable too.

Nzimande is also given prominence in the Inside Higher Education report on the conference. This   report details how Philip Altbach spoke of a revolution in higher education and John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning talked about how the use of transformative technology can bend the ‘iron triangle’ of access, quality and cost for developing country knowledge.

In the roundtable on African higher education, however, Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, lamented the continent’s overall status as a consumer of knowledge, as opposed to a producer. “Over the last few decades, some things have not changed. There’s been no significant break in relations of knowledge production between the colonial and post-colonial eras. African universities are essentially consumers of knowledge produced in developed countries,” he said.

“Virtually all partnerships tend to be one-sided. This is not only negative for the African continent, but we believe it also deprives global higher education of access to the indigenous knowledge of Africa,” Nzimande said.

This is an encouraging sign that the new ministry might be looking at effective and democratic research dissemination and publication as one of its key strategies.

More in Inside Higher Education, An Academic Revolution 7 July 2009

Publishing and perishing in Africa

I was given pause for thought last week when, in a University of Cape Town Centre for Higher Education Development seminar on research ethics, Kevin Williams, of the Higher and Adult Education and Development Unit (HEASDU) mentioned that some of his respondents to an investigation of the ethics involved in higher education practitioner research had expressed doubts about the real intentions of researchers interviewing them. Were these researchers really interested in the importance of the research they were conducting, or was their main concern to get material that could be worked into journal articles and chapters in books, for promotion purposes? This might have been something of an aside in Kevin’s talk, but it struck a chord and made me think that there might indeed be an ethical dimension in our obsession with journal article counts and accredited publications.

I have had the question in mind as I have scanned a number of recent publications on the renewal of higher education in Africa and have noted with concern the persistence of the use of counts of journal articles published in ISI journals as the standard and sometimes the only measure for the status of African research in the world. In other words, in a continent in which the goal of public investment in research is explicitly to contribute to national growth and development, the measure of success all too often applied is the production of a lot of journal articles in foreign publications targeted at other scholars in the field. This is hardly a metric that is going to tell us anything about what our scholars are really contributing to the resolution of the considerable problems that challenge the continent.

The surge of  interest in African higher education is in good part owing to the publication by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) of a series of reports on the state of higher education in the SADC region, summarised in Towards a Common Future: Higher Education in the SADC Region. Drawing in part from this, Sci-Dev.net has published a series of articles on developments in African higher education. And the World Bank, backtracking from its damaging dismissal of higher education as a funding priority in the 1980s, in 2008 published Accelerating Catch-up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa1.

The message in all of these reports has a not very equal measure of good and bad news. The good news is that there is a concerted effort to turn around the deficits in African higher education, damaged by 20 years of funding neglect, on top of a poor colonial inheritance.

The bad news is that African higher education remains in poor shape, in need of radical infusions of funding and visionary planning. It is all too easy to forget that when the wave of independence rolled across Africa from the 1960s, there were very few universities outside of South Africa, and as  universities were rapidly developed in newly independent countries, these were based on the colonial model, designed to produce a governing and professional elite and to reinforce what were accepted as ‘international’ values.

This is only one of the reasons why I am concerned with the insistence on ISI journal article counts as the measure of research excellence. This is par excellence a colonial measure, designed to value research according to how it conforms to criteria set by a commercial conglomerate in the metropolis/the USA to define what is ‘mainstream’.  Africa, on the other hand, is about as far off in the periphery as one can get and, not unpredictably, does not score well in this index. What is often ignored that is that the value system that underpins this particular measure is competitiveness of universities and individual scholars  in the the not very level playing field of the global knowledge economy, where commercial enterprise and copyrights and patents are seen as the ways to make a difference.

There is no doubt that as long as this remains an accepted standard of excellence by the most powerful players in the global scholarly community, African scholars will have to go on playing this game. And this is an ethical issue. As Obama calls for shared values and the power of ideals over cynicism, power politics and greed, perhaps the way in which Africa can say ‘Yes we can!’ is in learning to value the knowledge it produces by its own standards. In those SADC countries in which 89% of scholars responded that their research interests coincided with national development targets, how can we develop measures for ‘Africa’s share of world science’ that measure this rather than participation in someone else’s science endeavours?

How can we re-cast the idea of what is ‘international’ – as Paul Zeleza has said, how do we learn to globalise our research and localise US research? Most importantly, how do we revalue the hierachies of ‘applied’ and ‘basic’ research to develop ways of valuing what we in Africa are really good at: high level and high quality research that responds to and learns from society? How do we get support for the more effective and more extensive production of research outputs that  this kind of research is already producing and that demonstrate genuine contributions to national and regional development?

What is certain is that if African universities were to provide open access for the considerable volume of publications already posted online by development research units and ensure that these are easliy accessible, this in itself could boost the contribution of African universities to development goals.

1. I am not including the url to the World Bank publication, by the way, because of its confused approach to its intellectual property rights management. I would have thought that the World Bank would want its African readership, in particular, to read this publication. But, although it exists as an e-book, that version is ‘available to subscribers only’. Otherwise you can buy it in print. Does the World Bank really want to make money from African countries by selling its publications, or restrict access to a text that is readily available in PDF format and costs nothing to distribute? The e-book is copyrighted with an ‘all rights reserved’ licence, that nevertheless states that ‘[t]he International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank encourages dissemination of its work and will normally grant permission to reproduce portions of the work promptly.’  Which being translated means that you need to apply  to the US Copyright Clearance Centre for permission to photocopy or reprint ‘any part of this work’.  You have to either write a letter or telephone – no email address available. Could someone please send an ambassador to the World Bank publisher to explain how Creative Commons licences work?

African Universities Leaders Forum proceedings now online

A lot of interest was shown among my colleagues in a variety of organisations in the Frontiers of Knowledge Forum hosted by the University of Cape Town last November – another sign of the increased activity in African higher education and the particular interest in the role of ICT in African higher education. The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA), which sponsored the forum, has now put the Forum documentation online, so that there is a full record available of the proceedings, the papers delivered, and the recommendations of the Forum. The documents also include a commissioned paper by Dick Ng’ambi of the Centre for Educational Technology at UCT on ICT and economic development in Africa; the role of higher education institutions.

This was the inaugural meeting of the African University Leaders Forum at which Vice-Chancellors of fifteen African Universities met in Cape Town to discuss the role of higher education in promoting economic growth in Africa. They focused in particular – to quote the website – ‘on the immense potential of information and communication technologies to transform the teaching, learning, and research environments in African universities, and the capacity of those technologies to stimulate large changes in Africa’s growing economies.’

The Forum took an aggressive line on the need for connectivity and broadband access in African universities as a basic requirement for national advancement – rather than a luxury. There was general agreement on the need to grow the level of African research output and to disseminate it better. In the in the final recommendations, the recommendation for the management of African knowledge contains an implicit endorsement of communication technologies open access:

African higher education institutions can play a leadership role in developing new institutions and business models for knowledge dissemination at the African and global levels. Some of the existing North American and European institutions can act as barriers to realizing the potential of African knowledge, and are under severe pressure themselves from the advance of open source and open access approaches.

Another recommendation was that African universities should ‘also develop new ways to take advantage of the increasing availability and quality of open educational resources at the international level.’

These are the challenges identified by the vice-chancellors at the close of the Forum:

  • Africa’s greatest asset is its human talent
  • Harnessing this talent will require new and large investment at all levels of education
  • Information and knowledge are the greatest contemporary levers of sustainable development
  • This recognition underscores the cardinal role of higher education
  • The
    fullest benefits of higher education will be in greater equitable
    access, high quality teaching and research infrastructure, greater
    institutional autonomy within a framework of public accountability
  • Greater
    economic growth will occur in a more participative human environment
    and in more deregulated economies which allow for greater social
    inventiveness
  • A key historic feature of modern Africa is the emergent and increasingly vibrant African private sector
  • African higher education must engage closely with this emergent sector
  • Working
    with government, the private sector, and civil society, higher
    education must press for a high intensity information and communication
    technology environment across the African continent
  • Networked African universities must consolidate their role at the centre of a new and changing continent