Dull, hackneyed and uninspiring is how the speech read by President Professor Peter Mutharika at the University of Malawi’s (Unima) fundraising dinner would have been described had it not included a comment that the institution’s academics should focus on research and “not waste time writing and commenting on trivial public issues”.
The dinner was a major fundraising event in preparation for the University’s forthcoming golden jubilee cerebrations. It was opportunely primed for a major government policy speech on higher education. That opportunity was lost in the humdrum of formalistic presidential speeches.
To ‘encourage’ lecturers to do research and publish is the same as to encourage drivers to drive, a tailor to sew, or fisherman to fish. It is that ridiculous.
And to exhort lecturers in general terms to publish internationally is to ignore serious debates about the value of the pursuit of international publications for their own sake in a context where research on Africa by Africans remains largely inaccessible to researchers on the content, the general public and policy makers, issues of ownership and control over international publications, and the complexities involved in translating in-depth research on locally relevant issues into something that is universally intelligible.
The challenge on the continent lies in building self-sufficient scholarly communities that can engage freely at national, sub-regional and regional levels in cutting-edge research into problems that affect African peoples. It also lies in creating sufficient and rigorous research outlets where African issues and problems can be ventilated with greater specificity and at reasonable depth.
For various well-known reasons, African universities are also struggling to achieve the levels of excellence in teaching that would give their students a competitive edge on the international market.
To overcome these challenges requires one to understand the plight of universities in Africa. The history of African universities has been one of a constant tension between the State and higher education institutions, of a relationship of control and dependence that goes back to the very early days of independence.
Propelled by anti-colonialist and nationalistic agenda, independence governments rapidly established universities primarily as institutions for the production of skills needed to serve the new economies and governments. At the same time, seen as potential breeding ground for political dissent, independence governments felt obliged to control the agenda and operations of universities.
The acceptance of the structural adjustment programmes from the late 1980s as the economic dogma for developing countries saw the beginning of a period of more destructive marginalisation of higher education and research. The progressive cuts in financial support to universities led to loss of the much-needed resources by these young universities, which was not made up for by the fees accumulated from the rapid expansion of student numbers.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that most African universities have, practically speaking, been teaching universities. However, they have in large measure discharged that mandate with distinction and on top of that, engaged in notable research in a horribly hostile environment.
Unima, like many other universities in Africa, has been most adversely affected by decades of neglect and marginalisation. It is in this context that President’s comments were received and found wanting.
The President did not, even at the level of platitudes, demonstrate any awareness of the challenges that Unima and other universities face. Neither did he make a commitment to bringing higher education back on to the national agenda. What is more, the President did not demonstrate that his government has a constitutional responsibility to facilitate access to quality primary, secondary and higher education and to support research in particular.
Throughout the world, research remains largely sponsored by governments even though private organisations and companies have increasingly claimed a share. One disadvantage that private funding has over government funded-research is that it is often for specific, short-term, purposes and tends to limit the freedom of the researchers to choose what to research, with whom and how. Furthermore, private funding is something that is well established in the West and African based companies and wealthy people are yet to embrace the philanthropic culture.
To date, Malawi does not have a national research accreditation, rating and funding institution to promote, support and fund academic research in all fields of intellectual endeavour.
- Danwood Chirwa is a Malawian professor of law and one of the legal commentators relied up by Nyasa Times and Malawi mainstream media.