Growing a research culture.

Author:Studman, Cliff
Position:Shop Talk - Universities


In the majority of universities in America and other developed countries, the concept of research-led teaching is well understood. While it may not always be practised, the nature of research is appreciated, and leading researchers who contribute significantly to the overall quality of academic performance are valued, in turn increasing the stature of the entire institution in the mind of society (Geiger, 1993; Pratt, 1997; and Lipset, 1994). In such countries as the United States and the United Kingdom, the cultural environment is one in which the principles underpinning scientific study and advancement through questioning established norms, technological innovation, and scholarly study are sufficiently well established in the academic environment to be appreciated and understood by all. The long cultural history of academic scholarship is sufficiently well established that it is self-propagating--students grow up in an environment of logical enquiry and thus understand the philosophical principles involved, at least at a level sufficient to maintain the culture. Staff transfer between culturally similar universities also ensures a healthy cross-fertilization of ideas, all within institutions focused on research. To a large extent the culture is task oriented with an emphasis on delivery of outputs in the form of reports, papers, and other deliverables. The debate may be about the level and means of funding (Geuna, 1999; New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2002), the meaning of research (Boyer, 1990; Gibbons et al, 1994), or even about proving the research-teaching nexus (Hattie and Marsh, 1996; Robertson, 1999; Zubrick, 2000), but it is still based upon a research-led environment.

None of this is automatically true in less developed countries. Traditional cultural values and worldviews may conflict with the basic concept of scientific enquiry; and so the concept of research practice may be interpreted in different ways. In a culture which emphasises relational values over task achievement, and which may even have an animistic world view rather than a rationalistic approach, inculcating ideas about the value of the scientific method and the timely delivery of research outputs can be difficult.

At this point in history, when traditional "Third World" countries are still emerging from the "colonial" past, the situation is inevitably confused. Traditional world-views clash with the desire for the prosperity and development perceived to be possessed by the "developed" countries. Academics have been exposed to Western values and attitudes and have adopted those values to differing degrees. When this mixture of values is applied to the case of the university, the institutional mind-set can be a conflict between the desire to be like other universities and the traditional underlying behaviour and attitudes of the staff. Where the staff themselves are a mixture of locals, ex-patriots from similar cultures, and ex-patriots from other cultures, the situation can become even more confused.

With these thoughts in mind, consider the current situation at the University of Botswana. Since its formal establishment in 1982, it has operated with a main focus on teaching. Although in a developing country, the University has relatively strong financial support from government and is growing rapidly. In 2001 its enrolment reached 11,000 full-time students, and plans were being developed to raise this to 15,000 by 2007. It is the only university in what at independence was one of the poorest countries in the world. Botswana is still a very undeveloped country, consisting mainly of the Kalahari Desert, although the combination of a stable and peaceful society, the discovery of diamonds in 1970, the adoption of a democratic electoral system, and generally good, benevolent governance with low corruption has resulted in dramatic growth and healthy foreign exchange reserves. Increased health care and education services have meant that the number of students eligible for tertiary education has increased dramati cally.

The Research Situation at the University of Botswana

Research and development has been conducted throughout the University since its beginnings, and many examples exist of excellent research outputs and achievements. Sometimes local staff or ex-patriot teaching staff on relatively short-term contracts produced research outputs on top of their teaching responsibilities, but in general research support was largely focussed towards full-time researchers in research centres, who were physically and administratively separated from the teaching facilities. At the turn of the century, the University changed this approach and began to emphasise the need for all university teachers to produce research outputs.

In 2001 local staff formed 55 percent of the full time academics. Although all academic staff had at least a master's degree, the University itself still did not have a recognisable culture in which research activity was the norm. Young local staff were generally sent overseas to study for PhDs, sometimes without any involvement of their departments while they were away. On return they were thrust into teaching roles, such that the research drive could easily be lost, especially if their research activity was simply not of interest to their colleagues. In addition, staff often had a limited capability and appreciation of research management, resulting in limited project management, accountability, and time management, and hence reduced performance.

Part of the government appropriation for funding university operations was used for research internal funding (around 1 to 1.5%). Traditionally the University of Botswana allocated funds to faculties, based on the academic staffing levels in the faculties. Faculty Research and Publications Committees (FRPCs) had their own guidelines for distributing the funds to faculty members. Amounts in excess of faculty limits were sent to a central committee for approval.

Prior to 1997 research was conducted through the so-called National Institute for Development Research and Documentation. With the introduction of academic staff appraisals based on research outputs, this centralised activity was wound down and research staff were transferred to an appropriate teaching faculty. The university library accepted responsibility for documentation. At the same time a major environmental research centre was developed in the Okavango Delta in the North of Botswana, some 1000 km from the main campus. By 2003 it was operating as a near independent research centre with almost 20 academics, although it was still dependent on the University for the bulk of its funding. Demands that this too should...

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