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Highlights from the Webinar 1 – Research and Innovation: An account of 50 years of Higher Education Development in the EAC

The Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) is currently hosting a series of webinars in commemoration of her Golden Jubilee. The first webinar, held on August 7th, 2020 dwelt on Research and Innovation: An account of 50 years of Higher Education Development in the EAC.

Speaking at the opening, the outgoing Executive Secretary for IUCEA, Prof. Alexandre Lyambabaje recognised the contribution of Mr. Eric Kigozi, IUCEA’s first Executive Secretary, who served for 30 years from 1970 to 2000. Mr. Kigozi passed away in July, 2020. “He demonstrated great qualities as a leader, when the first EAC collapsed with all its institutions except one, IUCEA. We will remember him for that great achievement and he made sure that IUCEA was recognised by the second EAC.”

Prof. Lyambabaje said that IUCEA kept playing a significant role for the positive transformation of the EAC and the higher learning landscape.  With IUCEA’s leadership, a collaboration was established and supported among member universities and currently there are 130 IUCEA member universities.

“IUCEA is active in continental and international initiatives that aim to improve the quality of teaching, research, and innovation in universities. We take this opportunity to thank the people and institutions that have helped IUCEA to achieve her mandate, the governments and Heads of State.”

He also thanked development partners – the World Bank, GIZ, KFW, Kyungdong University, SIDA and others who have supported IUCEA initiatives over the years.

Keynote Address

The keynote speaker was Prof. Peter Ngure, a deputy vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at St. Paul’s University in Kenya.

Prof. Ngure noted that post-independence university numbers in East Africa were low, for example, University of Nairobi had close to 1,000 students compared to today’s student population estimated at 513,000. The history of IUCEA is closely intertwined with that of EAC. The collapse of the EAC in 1977 frustrated IUCEA’s plans to establish a common higher education area similar to the European Higher Education Area.

He thanked DAAD for walking with IUCEA for many years. “As early as 1980s DAAD was supporting Quality Assurance systems and qualifications framework from which universities have immensely benefited from.” In the 80s IUCEA survived on the funding of the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Services (CHEMS).  When the EAC got revived, a process to re-establish IUCEA as an institution got underway to and was achieved in 2014.  The East African Common Higher Education Area (EACHEA) was eventually realised in May 2017.

He noted that university funding has dropped sharply, with governments in the EAC countries providing less than 35% of the operational budget.  He cited examples from Kenya where private universities receive students from the government but government provides less than 75000Kshs per year for a student, with some programs getting only 30,000Kshs per year.

He noted that postgraduate studies have grown but time to degree and completion rates is a significant challenge. In this region the average completion time for a PhD is six years but there are candidates who go on for up to 10 years. The appetite for postgraduate studies is lower compared to West Africa.

He observed that the number of students has increased while government funding has decreased and this has undermined the quality of education. This has impacted negatively on the employability of graduates with employers citing skills mismatch and lack of labour market information by university graduates.

He highlighted a recent study by the British Council which indicated that there are three most critical factors that determine the employability of a graduate – disciplinary knowledge, critical thinking, and language and communication skills.

“We are not doing very well especially in undergraduate training in helping students to think critically and analytically and also to improve their language and communication skills,” he noted. They also have gaps in IT skills, personal qualities such as reliability, perennial and transferable skills and the perennial negative attitude to work. “Those of you who’ve been teaching actively know that if you keep giving assignments to students, the students look at you and say, ‘mwalimu, you are stressing us’. To a norminal graduate work is equivalent to stress.”

He expressed his doubt on whether the courses taught at university have been well thought out or are responsive to market needs, noting that there is very limited training in areas that could jump start our economies – studies in petroleum, new technologies, culture.

Research and Innovation

The ambition of the African Union STI strategy that was launched in 2014 called on governments to spend at least 1% of their GDP on Research and Development. The level of investment or expenditure in Research and Development is the best indicator of a country’s seriousness about developing science and technology.

Prof. Ngure then wondered, is R&I a priority in universities? The number of staff dedicated to this is less than 10%. Research remains in the back banner and postgraduate training takes the frontline. Research is an appendage rather than the core business. The percentage of funds committed to research is still meagre. Our research outputs in this region are far below what is expected. There are few universities in the region with a dedicated grants acquisition and management entity.

The theses at universities – are they research products? Which questions do they answer and are they relevant to the university, society and government?

He said that he and other colleagues have lobbied (in Kenya) to allocate 14 million Kshs to centers of traditional medicine because some of the heath solutions will come from indigenous knowledge and medicinal plants.

He suggested that with all the challenges, why not create a few world class universities that would be research intensive and have another category of universities that would teach 50% and research 50% and be humble enough to accept that not all universities can drive this agenda of research and innovation. He noted the need to create research in tandem with government priorities.

Challenges of Research and Innovation in the EAC

  • He cited government underfunding
  • Poor remuneration of academics and researchers
  • Lack of accountability and laxity in performance evaluation. Universities don’t care where lecturers are and what they produce and top professors only appear for a few hours in the university and go into private business.
  • Weak leadership and management

He noted that there are some success stories in research in the region. He listed Resilient Africa Network (RAN) at Makerere University. Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC).

Food for thought for IUCEA

  • It should help establish a Community of Practice in the region by strengthening the link between universities and research institutes
  • Champion gender equity in postgraduate training and student mobility. 71% of PhD students in Kenya are male. Let’s be intentional in supporting mothers, e.g. support breastfeeding mothers.
  • Support quality assurance and protect the academy in East Africa from fake PhDs and fake research outputs
  • Support universities in the adoption of new technologies for teaching and learning

Webinar 2 on Higher Education and Community Engagement: Policy and Practice in East Africa will be held on 28th August 2020 from 10am to 1pm.

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