Sue Corbett reflects on the steps required for progress in improving research systems and on some lessons from a recent visit to Rwanda
I have been reflecting on the ways in which all the actors in the “research system” need to function and to collaborate actively with each other for research to be produced and used to inform national social and economic development.
On a recent visit to Rwanda, we took an action-oriented systems approach to analyse what is working, what is not and, with our partners’ help, which of the interventions we can offer will make a real difference.
In a very practical way, this is, we think, exactly what Brian Levy refers to in Working with the Grain: “the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground – not some normative vision of how they should be”.
There is no shortage of people who explicitly endorse the creation of a knowledge-based society or a digital economy in their countries – although it is less common to find that translated into a demand from government for research to be produced to address development or social-policy needs.
Within the higher-education system, we often find a ‘drag’ created by a combination of an overall shortage of funds, the pressure of growing student numbers, a complex and contested institutional environment, and, very simply, a huge ‘To Do’ list for those individuals tasked with leading change.
Of course, conditions are very different in each country. It is not necessarily the more advanced or more prosperous countries that are most ready to create change, as we saw in our pilot project in Sierra Leone.
For progress to be made in a country’s research system, we look for:
- The will to create a culture of doing and using research
- The preparedness to create incentives and conditions to make this happen
- Energetic change makers
- Support from the top
- The right timing
In some countries, even having a reading culture may be a recent innovation so there is a need to create the right culture for research to progress. Similarly, unless the preparedness to create incentives and conditions to make this happen are hardwired into the system, change doesn’t usually persist beyond an initial intervention. We look out particularly for regulations, rewards, incentives and penalties; these are the levers that govern behaviour.
Local ‘change makers’ in the research system need to be prepared to get involved and tackle the day-to-day challenges that often get in the way. These ‘change makers’ and problem solvers in turn need support from high-level university management and/or the government.
Finally, it is important to consider the timing in any initiative to help development of a research system – is there a moment when change is more likely?
Lessons from Rwanda
In Rwanda in November, INASP Associate Helena Asamoah Hassan and I met with senior management of the University of Rwanda (UR), which was formed in 2013 from the merger of the nation’s seven public Higher Learning Institutions. We also met with four UR college principals, the UR ICT director, the Ministry of Education, and Sida, which has a long-term support programme in higher education and also co-funds INASP’s work. In addition, we met with the leadership of a private university, researchers engaged in food science, and even a district mayor.
Our discussions during the visit revealed a strong drive, mandated by the government, to establish the new University of Rwanda as a research-productive institution. We found a senior university management team that appears to be united in realising this aim and wants to make rapid progress. The new UR is halfway through its official merger period so now is a good time to be discussing new support projects.
We found newly revised contracts for faculty that specify the percentage of time to be spent on teaching, research and community engagement. This is important because time pressures, particularly from teaching, often reduce the motivation to do research.
In Rwanda baseline figures are now being gathered for current research publications and targets set for each level of faculty going forward. This embraces the principle of “if it matters, measure it” but also means that at least the simplest level of monitoring and evaluation of a support project should be easy to do and will be driven locally.
There is also evidence of demand from government to UR for research to inform national policy making. One example is the desire to find better ways of getting qualified teachers into schools around the country.
Another factor that we found was recognition that a national library consortium for purchasing online journals and books would optimize the value to be gained for all of Rwandan higher education from limited funds. Current use of journals and books is low but we could reasonably expect the focus on publication to motivate researchers to read more and to push for a closer match between what is purchased and their own research interests. UR has a good computer system and is expected to lead ICT development for HE institutions across the country.
We found enthusiasm for a new joint project to establish trainers and learning materials for research-writing skills across the whole of UR – in a way that will enable research leaders to train generations of new researchers without relying on outside support. The timing seems to be right – the basics of the UR merger are in place and the DVCs, college principals and others are starting to think hard about how to improve research productivity.
There is still work to do to improve the acquisition, management and usage of research literature and this is crucial if the research done by faculty is to meet global scientific standards. University of Rwanda management recognizes this and is currently recruiting a University Librarian to provide leadership across the university’s library system. The almost complete new university library (pictured) is an impressive building with lots of light and space. Even in a digital age, the physical space carries a strong message about the importance of knowledge.