For a long time, universities were regarded as hallowed grounds for knowledge generation, in addition to their other mandates of teaching and provision of community extension services.
Of importance, the knowledge so created was meant to enlighten the society and help to address human needs.
But that has changed. Universities have clearly lost their stake in the control of knowledge creation. Instead of serving as initiators of independent researches, which allow for independent thinking and consequent objective knowledge, they are now beholden to external forces that dictate what should be researched.
Such forces find strength in the financial instability of these institutions. It is not uncommon to find researchers chasing around grants. And when they succeed, reality dawns on them that the awards are not without strings.
The funders will often impose stringent conditions, including but not limited to the ownership of the final report. At times, they propose substantial changes on the research problem so that it is in sync with their mainstream mission. This leaves the beggarly grantees with no option but to drop their supposed topic of interest for the funders’.
Accordingly, the knowledge generated cannot be owned by the university in question. Worse, it may not be of immediate relevance to the society since it was not initiated by them. This spells danger to the supposed creators of knowledge as it opens the floodgates for any moneyed lot to dictate the kind of knowledge to be generated — effectively crowding out university researchers.
It then becomes a pure case of knowledge trickling from unschooled quarters whose intention may not be immediately established into the otherwise pinnacles of enlightenment.
James Bryant Conant, Harvard University president in 1933-1953, had foreseen this when he advised that the best way to guarantee progress in scientific research was to identify geniuses, support them and let them work independently.
Dr Conant, a chemist, would introduce policies that revolutionised the research culture at the prestigious university, including provision of national scholarships to all students who demonstrated high intellectual rigour. The result of his push for independent research has persisted long after his death.
The craze for university research grants has been fuelled by the Commission for University Education (CUE). Instructively, one of the requirements for faculty appointment and promotion is to attract donor funding or grants. This condition has turned professors and other staff into fundraisers and project managers, so that they have little time to pursue independent research that can improve conventional knowledge and proffer solutions to local challenges.
Whereas such grants, at times, serve as an extra source of income for the universities, equally motivating faculty into publishing (to avoid academic ‘death’), they have, sadly, turned established and budding scholars alike into hirelings and publishers of irrelevant banalities.
Some funders have even short-changed local researchers who failed to read the fine print of the grants contractual documents — as confessed by one Prof Peter Barasa of Alupe University College at a recent staff workshop.
But be that as it may, all is not lost. There exist success stories from a few genuine funders. Some institutions, for instance, have benefited from material and equipment left behind after a funded research folds up. Further, the participating staff have gained more experience in global research trends and even forged productive partnerships.
Whichever way, however, grantsmanship should not be seen as the mainstay of university research funding. Local funders, such as the National Research Fund, should be strengthened and weaned of foreign dictatorial tendencies so as to support independent research.
That would rid the country of the shame and agony of craning our necks to foreign research for local solutions — as witnessed during the formulation of the now-controversial competency-based curriculum (CBC).
It’s a shame that no local university was actively involved in the research though that would have properly informed the rollout of such an important national programme. Tellingly, the scholars who were involved are likely to have done so as individuals, effectively falling into the script of bureaucrats.
Any government willing to register real progress must take charge of its responsibilities, including funding of research in higher education institutions. Anything short of this will render the latter as permanent grants chasers and mere automatons that implement external agenda.
Mr Osabwa is a lecturer at Alupe University College, Busia. [email protected]