Potential Solutions for Addressing Challenges Faced by African Academics in Obtaining Funding for Education Research - (Part 1)

This blog highlights the recommendations shared for researchers and universities on how to improve African researchers access to funding, during the ESSA and REAL Centre Conference.

Aug/25/2021

AERD

On 24th June 2021, ESSA, in collaboration with the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, organised the conference, “Action on Funding for African-led Education Research.” 

This important event brought together approximately 300 education stakeholders, including researchers, donors, policy actors and practitioners from Africa and beyond. The conference gave these education stakeholders the opportunity to engage in insightful discussions, which led to valuable ideas on improving access to funding for education researchers in Africa. 

The significant role that high-quality research plays in addressing the challenges of development – in Africa and beyond – cannot be underemphasized. Through research, evidence and data are gathered, allowing for a better understanding of the various socio-economic issues being faced by communities. New ideas and innovations can be born, leading to effective, sustainable change in these communities.  

Unfortunately, African researchers are often left out of this, as they are constrained in providing evidence to inform education debates and decision-making due to the immense financial challenges they face. There is an urgent need for increased investment in African education research, and even more so now, with the educational challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This blog features the two presentations by Professor Woldehanna and Professor Touré Kane, in which they both highlight the challenges faced in accessing funding for research in their respective countries, Ethiopia and Senegal, as well as some of the strategies that could be implemented by researchers and universities to improve this access to funding. 

Keynote speaker, Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia cited his university as a case study, as it faces similar challenges to other universities in Ethiopia and across Africa. In most universities across Africa, funding for research across the various disciplines is unfortunately quite low, with education being amongst those receiving the least. Addis Ababa University (AAU), one of the oldest universities, as well as one of the pioneers in research in Ethiopia, only started receiving research allocation by the government in 2012, after which 28 new research thematic areas (including 5 in education) were established. With this reform in funding, the university’s research output has consistently improved, increasing from 459 in 2013 to 1258 in 2020.

There are a myriad of reasons accounting for the low funding for research across the different disciplines, and more specifically, education. Professor Woldehanna identified a few, such as the restrictive policies in place limiting collaboration with researchers outside Africa, African universities’ lack of autonomy (compared to those in Western countries) and the negative perceptions that some international research organisations have about African researchers, thinking that their quality of research is poor.   

Professor Woldehanna also shared some strategies that could be employed to help improve access to funding by African researchers. There should be a greater focus on capacity building of African researchers through training and mentorship programmes. Furthermore, by creating long-term, sustainable partnerships between African universities and universities outside Africa, the African researchers will have more support to collaborate with their counterparts in these universities. Finally, Professor Woldehanna suggests that African governments allow their universities to work autonomously and develop regulations unique to their situation. 

The other stakeholders present at the conference also shared some recommendations for researchers, such as the need for researchers to identify niche areas and develop strong messaging to share with funders. Similar to Professor Woldehanna, the importance of trust and collaboration amongst researchers and funders was also highlighted during these discussions. Researchers are urged to build trust with funders by becoming more accountable and transparent with the resources received and deliver what is agreed upon in research agreements. In the same vein, researchers are encouraged to develop interdisciplinary research to strengthen collaboration and funding opportunities. To help secure these funding opportunities in the first place, attendees suggested that researchers network with representatives of the different foundations present at conferences and local events, as a lot of projects are often borne out of some of these informal conversations. 

Professor Ndèye Coumba Touré Kane, Rector of the University of Sine Saloum El-Hadj Ibrahima NIASS (USSEIN) and First Adviser in charge of Partnerships, Research and Innovation at the Ministry of Higher Education Research and Innovation of Senegal, cited Senegal as her case study. She discussed how the Senegalese government funds education research. In her presentation, Professor Kane highlighted the significance of higher education in the socio-economic development of Senegal and shared some of the challenges facing the sector. For Professor Kane, higher education institutions operate with great autonomy, but very few with accountability, responsibility, and national coordination. Another challenge facing the sector - according to her, is the low use of ICT in teaching and governance system.

One of the initiatives undertaken by the Senegalese government in addressing these challenges is the Programme of Governance and Financing of Higher Education, which lays out a performance contract between the Senegalese government and its public universities. In this contract, the Senegalese government agrees to grant more funding to universities that improve their performance in specific areas. One of the areas is that universities should improve the use of e-learning in their curriculums, e.g., by increasing the number of courses available online, which is especially important during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to this general funding for universities, the Senegalese government also provides funding for female researchers and researchers involved in applied research.  

Professor Kane also stressed on the importance of mentorship and training programmes, specifically for early career researchers, as well as the need for collaboration between universities and departments across Africa. An example of this is for centres of excellence, such as African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) to be established across universities and disciplines. Other attendees also highlighted the importance of a conducive environment for researchers to produce good quality research, such as a manageable workload and access to good quality journals.  To facilitate the production of exceptional research, a database of funders needs to be developed, with a unit of the university dedicated to reviewing this database regularly and sharing the different opportunities with the researchers. A clear research strategy could also be developed, with resources provided for the young academics to work with their experienced ones to implement it. 

In conclusion, this conference provided a platform for the various education stakeholders in attendance to discuss and identify some of the different ways to improve access to funding for African researchers. These recommendations proposed will lay the foundation for further engagements with different stakeholders, to inform practices and policies to improve access to research funding. This blog provides insights to researchers and universities on how they can improve their work to advance access to funding for African researchers. In the next blog post, the recommendations shared during the conference for funders will be highlighted.