Despite the significant investment and the considerable scale of expansion during the past two decades, Ethiopian higher education has lagged far behind expectations in research and innovation. Recently, however, the newly established Ministry of Science and Higher Education is taking positive steps to improve the situation. This was the message by the Minister, professor Hirut Woldemariam, at the opening of the 8thResearch Week at Addis Ababa University, themed ‘Research for knowledge generation and national development’.
With its universities allocating less than two per cent of their annual budget for research, Ethiopia trails behind the rest of the world in research productivity, even by African standards. In her speech, the minister highlighted some of the measures taken to address the issue including the reorganization of research at a directorate level within the ministry, the development of digital repository, and holding consecutive consultations aimed at improving resources allocation and the overall environment for research at public universities.
In addition, a new law being developed would make it mandatory for academic staff to engage in research. However, it is reasonable to question the merit of this approach as a way to improve the productivity and quality of research. In fact, the current law—the 2009 Higher Education Proclamation—requires academic staff to engage in research as a criterion for promotion.
Carrot works better than stick
Incentives can be more effective than mandatory requirements in improving the state of research. The later assumes that everyone has a similar disposition and ability to conduct research, while it disregards diversity among institutions by setting the same mission to all universities. Not all universities should be research oriented, the same way that not every academic staff should be expected to have the same interest and effectiveness as researchers. Academic staff should be encouraged and incentivized for their teaching and research performance separately.
According to the higher education proclamation, every institution is supposed to establish a research and innovation fund to mobilize and manage resources for research. The fund can be used to encourage research and publication in accordance with institutional priorities aligned with preset quality control mechanisms. The incentives should include financial components to help reduce the economic pressures that force academic staff to take part time jobs and moonlight at the expense of their teaching and research responsibilities. A blanket mandatory requirement is likely to be inefficient in directing resources to high quality priority research and may foster mediocrity instead.
Alternatively, if institutions are rewarded for quality research and disseminating the results, they will be encouraged to motivate their academic staff to pursue research activity. This requires a new approach to research coordination at a national level with the creation of a central body to set research agenda, raise and manage resources and encourage research in priority areas.
A national coordinating body
Cohesive research agenda and coordination: Setting a cohesive research agenda in priority areas pertinent to the social, economic and developmental goals of the country ensures a focused effort to address major challenges. It avoids duplication of research efforts and maximizes efficiency in resources utilization by promoting multi-disciplinary and multi sectoral research. The Council can also play a coordinating role between different stakeholders engaged in research activities. Primarily, it can liaison between universities, industry and other research institutions.
Better capacity to raise funds: Besides managing funds from the public purse, the Council will be in a better position to raise funds from other domestic and international sources. The Council would have greater credibility in the eyes of international donors and industry to funnel resources to national priorities.
Improving quality: The Council can mandate ethics and standards of practice to be observed across institutions to maintain quality of research. In collaboration with universities and professional associations, the Council can also create and maintain a classification of academic journals and other research outlets, based on quality and rigor. Such a national system, currently under study, can help universities design and implement incentive schemes.
Diaspora participation: Members of the Ethiopian diaspora in academic and research institutions abroad can contribute an immense amount of expertise and experience if they are allowed to apply for research funding that focuses on Ethiopian issues. The absence of funding opportunities is one of the challenges for their participation. This can be further leveraged as a means to promote collaborative research between members of the diaspora and local researchers by making it a requirement or by giving priority to collaborative projects. A collaborative approach could be a vital element in improving local research capacity. Additional benefits can also be sought by establishing priorities for members of the Ethiopians abroad who come with partial funding for their research project, or those with a clear plan for local capacity development.
Using funding for other strategic goals: One of the idiosyncrasies of research in Ethiopian higher education is the very low participation of female faculty members. By earmarking funds for female researchers or for research teams with a specified number of female participants, the Council can be instrumental in improving the gender balance in research. Funding instruments can be used to promote mentoring relations between senior and early career researchers, to encourage collaborative research between university and industry or between universities with different capacity, to prioritize multi-source funding and so on.
Overall, a well-designed national research system, coordinated by a central body is a crucial step to improving research in the Ethiopian higher education context. A system of rewards that recognizes both institutions and individual researchers for high quality problem-solving research, is a far more effective way to encourage academic staff of universities to pursue research than to make it mandatory.