Max Price: Start local, go global and fight the nation's corner

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

Building research-intensive universities in developing countries is no easy task but it is vital to the promotion of economic, cultural, social and intellectual progress, argues Max Price

The global rankings of universities reveal that there are few world- class research institutions in developing countries. There are no lower- income or lower middle-income nations represented in Times Higher Education's top 200, and of the upper middle-income countries, only Brazil, China and South Africa make an appearance.

The reasons are not hard to find. The main focus of universities in developing countries is usually local skills development, so teaching often takes priority in the internal allocation of resources.

The local economy's demand for professional skills and university graduates far outstrips the capacity of the national higher education system. There are fewer universities per million population than in developed countries due largely to the historic prioritisation of school education, with consequent pressure on the universities to accept far more students than they are resourced to cope with. This has a negative impact on the quality of teaching and on the time that lecturers have left to do research.

In most of the world, research grants come from national research funding councils, which in developing countries are generally underdeveloped and underfunded.

The brain drain is a critical issue that undermines the ability of universities in developing countries to compete in the research stakes.

The limited funding for research and graduate studies affects facilities, research equipment and the availability of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. This makes it difficult for developing countries to retain top academics, who are highly mobile and will generally move to where they think they can best do their work - usually in advanced economy universities.

A university is, after all, only as good as its brain trust.

Salaries in higher education in developing countries are low - not just in international terms but also in relation to alternative domestic career paths - so academics supplement their income with consulting work that often takes up time they might otherwise have devoted to research.

Finally, the rankings are biased against universities in poor countries. Most of them favour strong research institutions because they place heavy weighting on citations and research grants. This means they favour research output that is published in journals whose audiences are either in developed countries or are globally widespread. Hence, if much of a university's research addresses local development problems and is published in local journals aimed at local peers and policymakers, it scores low on citations and contributes little to building the university's global brand.

Some will say: "So what if there are only three developing countries with universities in the top 200? The universities in the global South are in fact fit for purpose - that is, the mass production of knowledge workers and research addressing local problems."

Such people argue that it would be an inefficient allocation of resources to fund developing nations to answer blue-sky research questions in, say, particle physics, pure mathematics or economics when it could be done better in the North. And national development demands that public resources be allocated to other sectors.

Yet there are good reasons why the production of new knowledge should not be the preserve of the rich and powerful countries of the world. The question of North-South inequality is not just an ideological matter nor an issue of national pride - as perhaps the Olympic medals tables might be. Rather, it is about economic development as developing countries transform into high-tech knowledge economies, albeit to varying degrees.

In a globalised economy, developing countries cannot afford merely to occupy a point on a technological trajectory where it will take a decade or two to catch up with the rest of the world. If a country cannot integrate reasonably competitively into global systems of trade, finance, communications and data, production, quality assurance and global markets, it cannot develop. If a developing country is not independently competent to advocate its position in global policy debates - whether these concern sustainability, world trade, legal systems, international relations, marine and mineral resource extraction or countless other arenas - it will not be able to protect and promote its interests.

All this requires at least some internationally competitive research universities. They are needed in developing countries to ensure that direct foreign investment can reach engineers and managers, local innovators and researchers who can integrate, adapt and service the latest technologies. They are needed to reassure local drivers of business, professionals in the education and health systems, and architects of international trade and resource management that their own and their children's education will be of a sufficiently high quality to enable them to compete for jobs in global workplaces.

The presence of research universities creates confidence among those who might otherwise leave the country that they can obtain sophisticated healthcare from their own academic hospitals and professors. And reciprocally, research universities are needed to attract skilled immigrants, who bring much-needed expertise.

This is about not being merely consumers of others' innovations and ideas but being explorers and shapers of the future.

One of the most important reasons for nurturing a few strong research universities in developing countries is to educate the next generation of academics for all the other universities in the country and the region. While such training could be achieved by sending career academics abroad for their PhDs, the evidence is that few return. Educating scholars locally, with some international exposure if possible, is often more appropriate in terms of the research topics and more efficient in regards to cost and retention.

Talented young academics everywhere have choices. Every top 200 university in the world is luring them to their campuses for their own good reasons of promoting diversity and recruiting the best talent globally. (It also helps in the rankings.) So unless young scholars believe they can get a comparable doctoral education and a job at a top-flight national university, they will vote with their feet.

Given the obstacles described above, how can poor countries develop strong research universities? All the evidence suggests that it costs money, first and foremost. It would be hard to argue that low-income countries can afford what is required. They should therefore concentrate on ensuring the high quality of their teaching programmes with enough research capacity to be able to address local problems.

However, middle-income countries, especially upper middle-income ones, need to develop strategies for supporting at least a few of their institutions to become globally competitive. They cannot afford to do so for all, or even many, of their universities. In almost all countries where there has been a national plan to improve the global competitiveness of the academy, the strategy has been to select a few leading universities and concentrate significant additional resources on them.

This strategy is controversial in many countries. South Africa is a case in point, with the issue further complicated by the apartheid legacy: the only universities with real potential to compete globally are those that during the apartheid years were financially privileged and racially restrictive. To some, any further investment in these institutions would subvert goals of racial redress and reduced inequity.

The University of Cape Town is one of those historically advantaged institutions. The state allocates less to it per student for teaching than to disadvantaged universities because of the redress and development top- slice that is allocated to the latter. All the other pressures and biases affecting research universities in developing countries apply to us, too. Our goal is therefore to couple the pursuit of research excellence with a project to transform the university, opening it up to able students who would previously have been excluded or disadvantaged. The majority of our students are black and eager for the opportunities afforded by a globally connected, strong research university.

So how has the university succeeded in climbing step by step over the five years since it first broke into the Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 200 to the point where it is now knocking on the door of the top 100?

To the great credit of the country's Constitution and its government, South African universities enjoy substantial autonomy in everything from the appointment of governing councils and presidents to staff salaries, fees, admission policies, curricula and the research agenda. A critical success factor for UCT has been the ability to set higher tuition fees while simultaneously ensuring needs-based bursaries to all who qualify academically. This affords better staff-to-student ratios and top-quartile salaries - helping to retain the best staff and ensuring more time for research.

The university has also raised substantial funds for doctoral study, postdoctoral positions and research equipment - mostly from international foundations.

The research effort is aided by some far-sighted thinking in the national Department of Science and Technology. These policies include support for pure research chairs to free top researchers from heavy teaching loads; research grants distributed competitively to individual researchers on the basis of excellence; investment in basic science infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project; and broadband connectivity (still lacking in many poor countries).

Partnerships with industry have also been important in supporting research, especially in engineering, economics, business and health sciences.

Securing talent beyond our borders is important. At present, we recruit approximately a fifth of our faculty and a third of our postgraduate students from outside the country. Partnerships with academics internationally have also been critical to maintaining research output and quality, publishing in international journals and participating heavily in international conferences, all of which promote our visibility among international peers.

As already mentioned, the most important determinant of quality is attracting and retaining academics who are international leaders in their fields. Recognising that UCT would not be able to do this through salaries alone (nor is it likely to match the level of laboratory and research support provided in leading well-funded universities), we needed to find something else, some niche that would make the university a destination of choice for academics, postdocs and doctoral students.

The strategy has been to position ourselves as a hub of intellectual activity that pertains to Africa: not only in its continental distinctiveness but also as a critical participant in global processes, past and present. This is the place where human life originated; this is the mineral-rich continent that subsidised the wealth and power of erstwhile empires and that remains pivotal to global economic trajectories, as the new scramble for Africa underscores.

The tragedy of slavery has connected Africa's history indissolubly to the other places that took shape on the back of slave labour. Whether it be designing the climate-change models for the continent, understanding its biodiversity, the origins of life and of humans, infectious diseases, genetic diversity, Antarctica and the Southern oceans, politics and constitution-making in post-conflict societies, natural resource extraction, regional trade and economic blocs, doing business in emerging markets, languages, literatures and philosophies of the continent, and much else - an intellectual location in Africa makes a powerful, often indispensable, contribution.

UCT's mission is to be the academic meeting point between South Africa, the rest of Africa and the world. This is how we are becoming a global player and partner of choice for other world-class universities.

Max Price is vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town

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