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University research takes back seat as consultancy becomes more lucrative

Though research is one of the core functions of universities, lecturers have admitted they have shifted their goalposts towards consultancy.

At a dialogue convened at Makerere University to discuss the role of academia in the development discourse on October 8, dons blamed the popularity of consultancy on the lack of funds for research at the universities. Prior to this dialogue, the directorate of Research and Graduate Training (DRGT), whose core role is research, had cried foul at the neglect of research.

“I feel [ashamed] to report here that at Makerere and other public universities in Uganda, there is a comparatively low level of support for basic research. As a result the research-industrial economic growth nexus is being impeded if not compromised,” said Prof Buyinza Mukadasi, DRGT’s director.

This was during the opening ceremony of the annual review meeting between Makerere University and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), held at Makerere’s college of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, recently.

But Dr Alex Nkabahona, a lecturer at the Religion and Peace Studies department at Makerere University, believes there are alternative sources of research funds which universities should tap. He blames lecturers for being blind to such opportunities.

“Lecturers lack information on the available funding opportunities from development partners; this is because there are low levels of information sharing among academics,” he observes.

Govt ceding role to donors

At the dialogue, Dr Sarah Ssali, from the school of Women and Gender Studies, noted that government had invested little in research, leaving it in the hands of development partners. Consequently, Dr Godfrey Asiimwe, the head of Makerere’s department of Development Studies, argued that, ‘basic research’ has been neglected.

“Useful research [according to development partners] is applied research because the results are easily quantifiable,” he said, at the dialogue organised by the University Forum on Governance, in conjunction with Konrad Adeneur Stiftung.

“Because we never invest in research,” Dr Ssali continued, “we largely tend to conform rather than challenge the findings from other research works.

In Scholars In The Market Place: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005, Prof Mahmood Mamdani argues that the consultancy culture has impacted negatively on both postgraduate education and research.

“Consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. They think of research as finding answers, not as formulating a problem.”

Dr Ssali also believes that consultancy was highly driven by government’s preference for foreign research think tanks over research done by university academics. As a result, Dr Ssali continues, some of the academics run to such think tanks. Dr Sallie Simba Kayunga, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, seems to agree with Dr Ssali.

“Whether government is willing to consume what we produce is another issue,” he says.

According to Dr Asiimwe, government shuns much of the research by academics because “[Government] technocrats are lazy when it comes to reading research reports; they will say ‘your [academics’] reports are so rigorous and idealistic.’”

But Prof Edward Kirumira, the principal of Makerere’s college of Humanities and Social Sciences (Chuss), has a different view. He insists government cannot use research it has not demanded from the academics. With reference to his 15-year experience in sexual and reproductive, and HIV/Aids research, Prof Kirumira underscores the need for universities to establish research and consultancy bureaus.

“To be able to do research for government, there is need to institutionalise research and consultancy,” he told The Observer. He argues that such centres would make lecturers do research and consultancy under the university as opposed to what he terms “The individualistic way of doing things which aims at quick monetary gains as opposed to the impact of research on human life.”

Donor money

With the largest portion of funding for research to universities and developing countries coming from development partners, terms and conditions are expected. Dr Ssali asserts that donors come with their own priorities.

“For example, most of the big investments in research are those related to HIV/Aids, yet malaria is the number one killer; it [malaria] should therefore be given priority,” she notes.

Indeed, universities get the largest portion of their research packages from NGOs from Sweden, Japan and Norway and also the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, among others, among others. Information from the university website indicates that Makerere contributes only one per cent of its income to research.

While average government support to public universities is about Shs 800m, largely inclined to the sciences as opposed to the humanities. Donor funding is contractual and subject to renewal.

No time for research

Though Prof Kirumira notes that 60 per cent of a lecturer’s output is supposed to be research and publications – according to Makerere’s teaching policy – he admits that many dons do not get the time to engage in research.

Dr Kayunga blames the semester system, which he says does not allow the academics time to engage in research since they are always busy with teaching, supervising and marking. This complaint is echoed by Dr Nkabahona.

“Universities have not taken into account the teaching load – which has reduced time for [us lecturers to engage in] research,” he complains.

Dissemination

Even with the meagre funds with which they have undertaken research, the dons admit that the research reports done at master’s and doctorate levels are neither read nor disseminated. Dr Kayunga, for example, confesses: “None of my publications is on my course outlines; so, we hide our own research from our students.”

Consequently, Nkabahona argues, failure by many lecturers to publish their research discourages both new and further research. He, however, advises that academics need to use digital platforms to have their research findings read.

“The staff should be encouraged and challenged at the same time, to use online platforms; they should put their research online – the staffs need to take the initiative; they must research and publish or perish,” he advises.

How did we get here?

According to Asiimwe, research in African universities declined in the 1980s as a result of neo-liberalisation (which is associated with deregulation, open markets and privatisation) – which he says led to the influx of multinational corporations and research think tanks. Neo-liberalism, he continues, directed Africa’s development towards interest of modernisation and ‘marketisation.’

“This led to disconnect between public universities and the state because the latter could not rely on the actors for policy research. It, in turn, led to reduction in funding for universities and research. There was a tendency to take research and higher education in Africa as a luxury and as unproductive,” he observes.

Consequently, Dr Asiimwe notes, the 1980s ushered in the consultancy industry as a way of fixing African problems; this phased out the need to invest heavily in research. Asiimwe also recollects that owing to poor pay, researchers from universities left to do research for NGOs as well as opening up their own consultancies.

Those who had the right ‘connections’ joined government agencies as experts.

“For survival, scholars in the humanities had to go to secondary schools to start teaching to make ends meet, and sell their pamphlets and published notes – that ruined in-depth scholarship, independent research and knowledge production in our universities.”

With the tightening of policies in secondary schools, Asiimwe explains, the academics had no alternative but invade vocational schools, and this led to the “vocationalisation’ and ‘technologisationisation’ of universities.”

Taking it to the communities

While Nkabahona admits that dissemination of research findings is a challenge, he notes: “Communities are fatigued by researchers who go to them to do research, which research does not seem to improve their lives.”

“We should involve the population right from idea conception, engage the communities, listen to them and involve them in the implementation of the research recommendations,” he says. He reminisces about a scenario in which, as a researcher on land conflicts in Gulu, people complained to him about the big number of researchers who had come to conduct research on many issues before, yet their problems persisted.

Perhaps a better model of taking it to the communities is what Prof William Bazeyo, the dean school of Public Health, recommends: consultative and participatory research that involves communities, since, he says, “Consultancy can’t solve the problems of communities. They come and get their pay and go away but consultative research solves communities’ problems.”

Prof Bazeyo, also chief of party at Resilient Africa Network (Ran), an innovations incubation centre, adds that Ran and the school of Public Health do not shelve research, but rather, disseminate and show.

“People need to know what you are doing as a researcher. At our school [of Public Health], we do it [research] with communities, students, faculty, medics and anthropologists. We also involve community leaders,” he says, adding that such research has been in disaster-prone areas such as Bududa and Kasese.

With Uganda struggling to crawl to a middle income status by 2040, it is important that more funds are injected into research. And as Prof Mukadasi rightly puts it, “In Uganda, it is more important than ever before that the latest research is readily accessible to, and in harmony with, industry.”

kamsam21@gmail.com

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