Thursday, March 4, 2021

Some UB PhDs are ‘under-performing’ – SA think-tank

One piece of good news from the latest report of a South African think-tank is that, of the eight flagship universities chosen for a continental study, the University of Botswana was the only one that reported a proportion of more than 50 percent for female students at masters level. The other is that compared to a previous study, the varsity moves above the target for research papers per professor and associate professor. The bad news is that compared to their colleagues at the University of Cape Town, UB lecturers (as those of six other African varsities) are generally “underperforming” in the area of research. “Only Cape Town met both the research articles target as well as that of doctoral graduates per permanent academic with a doctoral qualification. None of the other seven universities met either of the targets. The main implication … is that the well-qualified permanent academic staff (those with doctorates) of the seven universities have been under-performing as far as the production of high-level knowledge outputs is concerned,” says a report from the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET).

The oddity of this situation is that UB’s ration of full-time students to full-time academic staff falls in a range “which indicates that academic workloads were probably not excessive.” Between 2009 and 2011, UB had 481 staff with doctorates, 122 of them being associate professors and professors. The six other varsities in question are Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, the University of Ghana, the University of Mauritius, Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Nairobi in Kenya. A research centre based in Wynberg (a Cape Town suburb), CHET collects and analyses cross-national higher education data of eight African public universities that are the most prominent in their respective countries. Each of the eight varsities has liaison persons who submit raw data that is then analysed at CHET. In the case of UB, this task falls to Professor Isaac Mazonde and Onalenna Silas. Among others, each varsity aims to “engage in high-quality research and scholarship” as well as to “deliver knowledge products which will enhance both national and regional development.” The first CHET report, which came out in 2012, was based on quantitative data for 2001 to 2007. The second, which was published last week, extends the overview to cover an 11-year period from 2001 to 2011. The enrolment data indicate that in 2011, only three universities ÔÇô Mauritius, Botswana and Cape Town ÔÇô had female proportions of 50 percent or above in undergraduate programmes.

In contrast to business, economics and management masters enrolments, the 2011 science and technology masters total in the eight universities was only slightly more than 8 200 (or 32 percent of the overall total). Only two universities, Cape Town and Makerere, had more than 50 percent of their masters enrolments in the broad field of science and technology. Four universities had less than 30 percent of their masters as well as overall enrolments in science and technology programmes in 2011. Botswana had 25 percent of masters and 21 percent of total student enrolments in science and technology programmes. Generally, proportions of female students in doctoral programmes were low. Only Cape Town (at 45 percent) had a female doctoral student enrolment above 40 percent in 2011 while Botswana, Mauritius and Nairobi had proportions of female doctoral students in the range 30 percent to 39 percent in 2011.

CHET says that minus UCT, the main problems that the seven universities face are that, relative to their undergraduate student bodies, they enrol low proportions of postgraduate students at masters and doctoral levels; their masters programmes seem to be focused on professional, capping degrees, rather than on degrees which offer training in high-level research – which results in low numbers of masters graduates moving on to doctoral studies; and, “the staff complements of these universities consist of high proportions of junior, under-qualified academics, leaving available low numbers of potential research leaders.” The report notes that research leaders should ideally have doctoral qualifications and hold ranks of professor or associate professor. The language appears to be hardening. In the first report which came out in 2012, CHET said that UB’s research productivity was very “low.” The study noted that while its total of research publications increased from 69 in 2000/2001 to 120 in 2007/2008, the figure was low relative to the number of staff. “An academic staff of 848 (the establishment posts reported by Botswana) should produce at least 420 research publications each year,” the study said. With a permanent academic staff of 764 staff in 2010/2011, UB produced 108 research publications in the same period. In earlier analysis, CHET found Botswana’s higher education systems to be wanting in many ways. It found their ability to respond to the needs of the knowledge economy to be “poor”, as it did their capacity/potential for research and innovation.

It adjudged the linking of education and economic planning as well as acceptance of the knowledge economy approach across departments at the national level to be “ineffective”. As regards coordination structures, it found these to be “weak or unsystematic” and networks to be “more political than productive.” “It seems that from the side of government there is not enough support, either financially or in terms of interaction to help the university to move from a more traditional undergraduate teaching institution to strengthening postgraduate programmes and producing new knowledge. The engagement strategy and the innovation hubs are certainly moves in the right direction, but these need more implementation support. A “national stakeholder” told its researchers that “a key problem with regard to innovation and university?industry partnerships is that the industrial base in Botswana is very small.

The private sector mainly consists of organisations implementing government programmes, which effectively means that the market is the government. Part of the private sector is spillover from South Africa but this leads to a big disconnect because the R&D for these companies is done in South Africa and not Botswana.” It is unclear who was making this statement but the study in question identifies national stakeholders as Sebolaaphuti Kutlwano in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and Richard Neill, Director (Policy and Planning) in the Tertiary Education Council – now called the Human Resource Development Council. A UB respondent said that there were no incentives for staff to undertake research, let alone incentives for research that is directly linked to development. In expanding the latter, another revealed some quite unsettling home truths: “Let me be honest here. Quite honestly at this stage, we don’t think government is consuming a lot of our research and I’m not saying they are to blame. The research that we’re doing here is mainly research driven by our need to publish because we’re living in a world where you publish or perish, and therefore it’s really not focused on trying to solve the real socio?economic needs of the country. If I can publish in the Journal of African Economists, once it gets in there I’m done; I have fulfilled what I’m doing. Whether somebody picks it up or not, it has not been an issue.”

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