May 5, 2011

The importance of research in a university [in a developing country]

This post is a different take on Mamdani's ideas on research that was discussed in a previous post. Instead on focusing on a "culture of consultancy" vs a "more meaningful culture of intellectual inquiry," this post discusses probably a more relevant issue: the importance of research in a university.

Before sharing the key points of Mamdani's article and commenting on it I should mention some of the reasons why universities do not support or promote research. This post considers research in universities in developing countries. The focus is on humanities and social sciences, and in postgraduate education, not undergraduate education.

Some of these reasons are:
  1. Lack of funding
  2. Some universities do not consider that research is important [it is a waste of resources]. Why? Because in the mission statements research is not a priority. They are teaching universities, or/and stand for some specific values [the idea that a university is a think tank].
  3. Focus on undergraduate education and lack of competition. There are not research universities in the country, mainly because there are not universities that offer Masters or PhD degrees in the different disciplines. Research goes hand in hand with graduate education. 
  4. There is no demand for research. Politicians or the media do not consider that research can be important to guide public policy, or can provide valuable information to citizens. Citizens do not demand research either.
  5. There are more important priorities for the use of scarce resources, such as infrastructure, technology, etc.
Mamdani adds to these reasons, the following -- he focuses on Africa postgraduate education:
  1. The consultancy culture
Today, the market-driven model is dominant in African universities. The consultancy culture it has nurtured has had negative consequences for postgraduate education and research. Consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. They think of research as finding answers, not as formulating a problem. The consultancy culture is institutionalized through short courses in research methodology, courses that teach students a set of tools to gather and process quantitative information, from which to cull answers.
[A] manifestation of a consultancy culture is that consultant don’t read, not because they cannot read, or are not interested in reading – but because reading becomes a luxury, an after-work activity. Because consultancies do not require you to read anything more than field data and notes.
He argues that research is important because:
  1. Research is diagnosis. Understanding a problem first is important to find a solution or to find ways of adaptation if a solution is not in the horizon.
  1. Building strong PhD programs.
But this challenge to autonomous scholarship is not unprecedented—indeed, autonomous scholarship was also denigrated in the early post-colonial state, when universities were conceived of as providing the “manpower” necessary for national development, and original knowledge production was seen as a luxury. Even when scholars saw themselves as critical of the state, such as during the 1970s at University of Dar es Salaam, intellectual work ended up being too wedded to a political program, even when it was critical of the state. The strength of Dar was that it nurtured a generation of public intellectuals. Its weakness was that this generation failed to reproduce itself. This is a fate that will repeat in the future if research is not put back into teaching and PhD program in Africa are not conceived of as training the next generation of African scholars.
MISR [the PhD program that Professor Mamdani directs in Uganda]  will seek to combine a commitment to local [indeed, regional] knowledge production, rooted in relevant linguistic and disciplinary terms, with a critical and disciplined reflection on the globalization of modern forms of knowledge and modern instruments of power. Rather than oppose the local to the global, it will seek to understand the global from the vantage point of the local. The doctoral program will seek to understand alternative forms of aesthetic, intellectual, ethical, and political traditions, both contemporary and historical, the objective being not just to learn about these forms, but also to learn from them. Over time, we hope this project will nurture a scholarly community that is equipped to rethink—in both intellectual and institutional terms—the very nature of the university and of the function it is meant to serve locally and globally.

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