The impact of selective research funding

07 October 2014 | Story by Newsroom

Body of evidence: despite rising student numbers, Africa lags in global research league tables, writes UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.

Enrolment in higher education over the past two decades has risen rapidly, especially in emerging economies. However, these countries lag far behind in academic and research excellence, and innovation more generally.

Sub-Saharan Africa provides a paradigmatic example: student numbers are expected to increase from about 4m in 1996 to 19m in 2015, effectively doubling each decade. But on the research front, African countries, both north and south of the Sahara, produce only 1.37 per cent of the output in science and engineering publications worldwide, even though they account for 13.8 per cent of the global population and 3.03 per cent of the world's gross domestic product. Africa produced only 0.56 per cent of the world's patents in 2006-11.

While global ranking systems have their shortcomings, there are only four universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings' top 200 from lower- and middle-income countries '“ three from China (Peking University, Tsinghua University and Fudan University) and one from South Africa (the University of Cape Town).

Does this matter? The costs of research universities are much higher per student enrolled, as are the costs of postgraduate training compared with undergraduate. Is it perhaps right that emerging economies prioritise undergraduate education and leave research to the well-endowed institutions of the north? While most low-income countries are unlikely to be able to sustain strong research universities '“ for cost reasons as well as the difficulty of attracting top academics '“ middle-income, lower-middle and emerging economies need the capacity to undertake their own original research, train their own doctoral graduates and develop their academic faculty. They therefore need at least some research universities. These institutions are central to their countries' ability to innovate. They help set national standards of excellence.

Yet there is invariably a trade-off between a rapid expansion of student access to universities and a deepening of research capacity. How should countries proceed?

The first step is to recognise that not all universities in a country can or should be the same. Only very few, perhaps only one, should be developed as research-intensive universities. Critically, those that are selected to be research-intensive will need significant additional funding. The funding not only supports research directly but, most importantly, ensures that academic staff are paid at levels that do not require them to moonlight '“ doing consulting at the expense of serious research. Proper funding also ensures student-staff ratios that leave time for conducting research.

This strategy has informed policy in some countries. In China, in 1998, the authorities decided they were going to support nine out of their 2 000 universities to become world class '“ a strategy that has had spectacular success. Germany and other countries have done something similar.

Yet most developing countries, usually for political reasons, have been reluctant to signal clearly that they will fund one or two universities at a much higher level than the others in order to make those few globally competitive. There is little universities can do in the absence of such a policy. But there are strategies that can help.

For example, in South Africa the core funding of higher education that comes from the Ministry of Higher Education and Training is separate from the funding for research, the latter being done through national science councils. This research funding is largely allocated on a competitive or strategic basis '“ reinforcing research groups that are already somewhat stronger, building centres of excellence or steering foreign research funds into selected universities.

Another enabling policy is to allow universities to set their own fees and salaries. Stronger universities will be able to charge higher fees and increase their revenue more rapidly, pay better wages and cross-subsidise research.

Universities aspiring to make themselves attractive to postgraduate students, post-doctoral fellows, internationally recognised researchers and strong research partners from abroad also need to identify where they might have a comparative advantage or niche area of expertise. This might be their geographical location '“ such as a particular biodiversity setting, profile of local diseases or access to unique communities and cultures.

A policy of selecting and investing in a small number of universities to become research institutions does not mean research should not be conducted at other universities too. But the selected research universities should be funded at a level that enables them to succeed in a globally competitive environment '“ and this clearly cannot be afforded for all.

Written by UCT's Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.

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