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The business of knowledge

Research capacity at historically black universities (HBUs) definitely needs strengthening. This is largely because I do not subscribe to the view which says that some institutions should simply remain as ”teaching institutions” (whatever that may be). A university, by definition, has to be involved in the business of creating knowledge and testing it. Such activities create the necessary atmosphere for critical thinking among both teachers and (by emulation and exposure) the learners. People who are active in research are also active thinkers and are known by their peers and they; in turn, know their peers and therefore remain close to the cutting edge of their disciplines. 

There are many reasons why research capacity at most HBUs has remained at levels which are far lower than at most of the older universities and, quite interestingly; these levels are also generally lower than those at most African universities, especially those within the region. It is important to note that, on average, universities in a country such as Tanzania are far less endowed than just about any HBU in this country; and yet their research output remains at very respectable levels. This has largely to do with a combination of the calibre of staff recruited into these institutions, and a long-standing and healthy culture of research as a central tenet of university life – and, perhaps more importantly, as the basis for promotion to senior academic grades. 

In the case of our HBUs, the reasons range from those that are, in some ways, true to mere excuses and what I see as historical factors that we can do nothing but contend with in an attempt to redress the situation. For example, on the question of calibre of staff, in a number of HBUs, partly for historical reasons (in fact, mainly so), you find many people who are in lecturing positions or are even ”professors” but who really have no business being at a university, certainly not as ”teachers”. There is therefore no ”leadership” for research. Unfortunately you cannot ”microwave” researchers into research leaders. It takes time, training, exposure, experience, interest and commitment. 

The conditions that prevail in some of these institutions also militate against the carrying out of good research. Many are not well equipped, but this point is often over-extended because I have seen far more poorly resourced institutions in other parts of the world, especially in other African countries, doing excellent research – a case of ”where there is a will … ” I am not convinced that money is a major limiting factor for the development of research in institutions in this country. There will always be money for those who seriously want to do research. 

However, in these institutions there is also quite often the problem of high staff: student ratios, resulting in staff spending most of their time on teaching activities. Again, this point has also often been over-extended. There is a need for creativity in managing one’s time. The lack of understanding of the research process has serious implications for the management of the process.The general notion is one which suggests that research is a very separate process from other academic activities and, for that reason, it does not get integrated into those activities. Hence you hear people who say they cannot publish because they are busy with their PhDs or because they supervise many masters students. 

At many institutions the world over, graduate studies among staff and graduate students are the basis for the research output. One needs to know how to structure the work of one’s graduate students, and also one’s own graduate studies, to make them into a proper research ”factories”. On this basis, I think the capacity building currently taking place may be in need of a major re-think. Where it is well planned it often focuses on identifying honours students as the foundation for developing a research programme within a department, but quite often it is not coordinated even at the department level; individuals, working on their own may encourage such enrolments, for the sheer prestige of having ”senior” students or in order to use these students to do the legwork for their own research or simply because some students have expressed a desire to further their qualifications.

There needs to be a plan which ensures that the graduate students are part of a larger process and that process needs to be properly co-ordinated. The focus also needs to be on students at higher levels (masters and doctoral) to form the necessary research nucleus. · Many HBUs can muster a reasonable number of honours students, who generally require more attention than masters and doctoral students and, in general, generate far less publishable material, unless their work is very carefully thought out. Therefore, in a sense, this is not really creating conditions for progress at HBUs and their limited staff resources are then used in this low-return fashion. 

In addition, it is not always easy to get the best graduate students because many of the students at these institutions do not come from middle-class families and need to go out and find employment. It therefore becomes difficult to keep the good ones and interest them in graduate studies, unless one can find them a stipendiary position in which they can study and earn something worthwhile. Other institutions are able to lure such students with attractive bursaries and fellowships. 

The major national research funding bodies have generally resisted going the route of stipendiary fellowships, for a variety of reasons, some of which I do not consider sound. The general principle appears to be that, if students are keen on improving their qualifications or to learn how to become researchers, this is sufficient incentive to make them take that option. This may be true for students from middleclass backgrounds where no members of the family see them as a potential source of financial support or whose parents are under such financial pressure that a child who obtains a degree would be seen as very selfish in not joining hands with other members of the family to support the next ”crop” that needs an education. This is a social reality that seems not to receive serious consideration. 

It is possible that there are more important considerations that I am not aware of. If that is not so, I suggest this issue be given some more thought. The bottom line is this: HBUs need research leaders. These have to ”imported”, from other institutions and even from other countries. These importations would need to have clearly defined time frames, objectives and deliverables, to ensure a good return on investment. They need a strong cadre of postgraduate students, at least at the masters level, not honours. The structure of the South African honours degree has itself been the subject of much debate and, happily; it now looks like there is reasonable consensus that it should go. Mentoring and continuous training on the ”research process” are absolutely essential. I know from personal experience what dividends this pays. 

All HBUs need to build the requirement of research output into their conditions of service, especially for promotion, as is the case at most self-respecting universities. Where this has been done, contrary to the prophets of doom who say that it would demotivate staff, it has in fact motivated them and a new sense of competition and purpose has become evident. While not suggesting that HBUs should abandon all else and embark on research, it should be understood, the argument is simply that research is a necessary part of the being of a university and, in the case of HBUs, needs  strengthening. To do so will require some financial support, but money for research is not in itself the main limiting factor. The limiting factor is people. We need people of the right calibre. 

A recent report prepared by the former Foundation for Research Development (now incorporated into the National Research Foundation) points out a whole range of institutional issues which make South Africa an unattractive destination for post-doctoral fellows, another valuable source of senior level researchers, who could also be used to mentor some of our junior researchers. No doubt the National Research Foundation will be looking at ways of improving this situation and has always shown commitment and creativity in dealing with the problem of low research activity at HBUs. We all wait with some anticipation as new policies unfold, to see what the prospective for the HBU s will be. 

Professor Kingston Nyamapfene is vice-chancellor (research) of Vista University


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