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The role of universities in knowledge production

Summary

To increase their contribution to development through the production and distribution of knowledge, universities in developing countries need to transform themselves into 'developmental universities'. But to achieve this, other participants, such as industry and government, must be also be prepared to take on new responsibilities. No ready-made model exists to guide these changes; they will require both creativity and the willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue, both within and outside universities.

Introduction

The essential contribution of knowledge to economic competitiveness and social welfare is now widely recognised. Such recognition has increased the attention to the role of universities in the production and dissemination of knowledge. A number of questions have been raised as a result. For example, are they contributing adequately to society? Are public universities providing an adequate return on the investment made in them? And who is entitled to judge what universities should do, and how well are they are performing?

The debate about the role of universities in developing countries is important for two reasons. First, knowledge is a crucial tool for overcoming underdevelopment. Relying on rich endowments of natural resources and cheap labour, without any contribution of local 'intellectual added value', has been — and continues to be — a dead end for development.

Second, knowledge is not a commodity that can be bought and put to work with little additional effort. To achieve this successfully, a strong local knowledge base needs to be created and nurtured. Without it, the world's information riches are out of reach, and therefore become meaningless and of little value.

This policy brief discusses the role of universities in developing countries by addressing three main questions:

  • How is the evolving role of knowledge driving the transformation of universities around the world?
  • What does this transformation mean for universities in developing countries?
  • How should universities in developing countries address the challenges raised by the transformation through which they are going?

In approaching these questions, we should remember that universities are not isolated institutions, but are socially embedded. Their principal features, such as their mode of governance, the way students and faculty are recruited, their funding methods, and their guiding 'visions', are each influenced by local history and traditions.

Furthermore, despite their many differences, universities all over the world face similar pressures to change many of their traditional ways of operating. But responses to such pressures cannot be the same in the developing world as it is for universities in developed countries. Universities in the developing world must find their own answers to questions concerning their role in the production and distribution of knowledge.

The changing role of knowledge production

The past few decades have seen a steady acceleration in the rate at which knowledge is accumulated, diversified and disseminated. One result is the increasing obsolescence in what people know, how they use that knowledge to solve problems, and even how they solve problems. Learning is therefore more important than ever, as it allows people, organisations, and countries not only to generate rapid changes in knowledge, but also to cope with such changes.

At the same time, learning has become increasingly demanding. Learning today requires appreciating a broad range of disciplines, and understanding the inter-relationships between basic knowledge and research that is more directly relevant to users' needs. Furthermore, universities need to find ways of organising learning that promote networking, both inside and outside academic institutions, and both locally and internationally.

In addition to this, learning is no longer concentrated at a single location. Admittedly, much of it still takes place in universities, particularly research universities – higher education institutions at which knowledge production is a primary activity. However, in some societies, scientifically and technologically related learning also takes place outside universities, for example in business settings. Additionally, new knowledge is increasingly being produced and applied in 'hybrid' settings that may involve groups of people from different disciplines and institutions coming together to tackle specific problems.

The overlap between academic and non-academic interests

The changing role of knowledge in society also means that the research agendas of universities are increasingly defined through interaction and negotiation with non-academic parties, in particular government and industry. As a consequence, the line between academic and non-academic realms is becoming blurred.

For universities, in which knowledge was once understood as being a public good — in other words a good that could be used by anyone — the merging of academic and non-academic interests can generate conflict, and has raised much debate. Opinion tends to be sharply divided on questions such as:

  • the extent to which universities claim intellectual property rights over their research findings
  • whether they should adopt more business-focused research strategies
  • whether they should accept restrictions on the publication of research funded by private sponsors
  • whether faculty researchers should be allowed to act as paid consultants to outside business enterprises.

Reflecting pressures towards the increasing 'privatisation' of what had previously been treated as public knowledge, universities are increasingly answering 'yes' to each of the above questions. The skyrocketing cost of high-level research, as well as the inability or reluctance of governments to act as the sole source of funds to meet these costs, is probably another factor.

But are universities on the right track? Many support such moves towards privatisation, arguing that universities have a responsibility to contribute to a nation's economic competitiveness, and to the creation of jobs. They also assert that these changes are essential for the development of key science-based technologies.

In contrast, opponents to the growing influence of business on academic institutions fear that the changes will inhibit research that produces fresh and unexpected knowledge. They also argue that the increased privatisation of knowledge undermines its availability for public use. Indeed, critics claim that these trends are dangerous for society as a whole, since they threaten the independence of universities, potentially compromising their ability to assess objectively the effects of new knowledge applications.

The debate is a heated one, involving many groups and interests. Furthermore changes on the roles of universities are occurring so rapidly that it has become almost impossible to make a sound assessment of current trends; examples exist that endorse and refute every position. But the discussion is also essential, and universities throughout the world need to continue to participate in it.

Shortcomings in learning in developing countries

Learning requires not only the formal accumulation of knowledge, but also the ability to solve problems. And skills in problem-solving do not emerge in a linear fashion from study, just as innovation does not spring directly from basic science. For learning in the broadest sense to occur, countries must provide people with the opportunity not only to study at the highest level, but also to apply the knowledge they acquire to problem-solving.

In the figure below, selected countries are mapped according to the 'opportunity to study' that they offer — measured roughly by the level of enrolment in higher education — and 'opportunities to apply knowledge creatively', represented by the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that is devoted to research and development.

The diagonal line stretching from the top left to bottom right can be labelled the 'learning divide'. [1] Roughly speaking, it separates the state of development from underdevelopment.

Individuals can cross this line through migration, a process that gives rise to the brain drain that is severely affecting countries in Africa and Latin America.[2] For countries to cross the line, however, they must increase the priority given to education, science, technology and innovation. South Korea, for example, has made the move; 25 years ago, it was in the same position as Brazil is today.

Figure: Higher education enrolment rates and percentage of GDP spent on research and development

 

Source: Data derived from UNESCO 2001.

The position of a developing country relative to the learning divide partly reflects the situation of its universities. But there are other reasons for countries remaining below the learning divide that, although beyond the control of universities, nevertheless affect the situation in which universities find themselves.

Three such factors are:

  • that the business sector may not invest significantly in research and development
  • that the proportion of innovative firms (rather than those that only licence technologies from others) may be low
  • that industry may employ few researchers

As a result of these three factors, universities in developing countries (in common with other public sector institutions) rarely face a strong and sophisticated demand for science and technology from business firms. In addition, many face further obstacles, such as shrinking budgets, low salaries, and a traditional arms-length relationship with industry.

Forging university-industry links

The responses of institutions themselves to such difficulties are often similar to those pursued in developed countries. For example, consulting and research contracts with industry are encouraged, faculty members may be allowed to be paid for 'external' consulting activities, and offices are created to boost university-industry collaboration.

However these mechanisms usually work far less efficiently below the learning divide than above it. Take the need to forge closer links between universities and industry. Such links have been documented at a macro level by innovation surveys carried out in a number of developing countries. These have revealed that in the case of Latin America, for example, only a small proportion of businesses reported interactions with universities.

Furthermore these interactions were generally felt to be of little significance (even in countries such as Brazil, which has a burgeoning network of contacts and dialogues at a micro level, see Cassiolato, Lastres and Maciel, 2003[3]).

This failure of successful small-scale collaborations between researchers and industry to grow into national trends is found in many developing countries. Why is this the case? The evidence shows that where contact and dialogue has been established, it tends to take place between individuals (in both universities and companies) rather than between the institutions in which they work. But given that few companies in the developing world employ university graduates, links with universities are difficult to establish.

Another reason, some argue, is that many universities in the developing world have a bias towards basic, rather than applied, science, making an institutional link with industry more difficult to gain acceptance.

Despite many difficulties, there are increasing reports of successful partnerships between universities and industry, such as the collaboration between an evolutionary biology laboratory and sheep producers in Uruguay (see panel).  

Panel: how knowledge from an evolutionary biology laboratory was used in sheep production in Uruguay

In recent years, sheep farmers in Uruguay have lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of the high proportion of coloured threads in the wool of their sheep.

The problem had been kept in check by using breeding rams that lack visible coloured threads in their own wool. But, because producing the coloured thread is a genetically inherited trait it could still be expressed in subsequent generations.

A more effective approach is therefore to determine whether or not the sire ram has the gene responsible for this trait. But this method requires knowledge of the genetic characteristics of the rams' ancestors.

A mechanism for achieving this was developed, purely for the purposes of basic research in evolution, in a university laboratory of evolutionary biology. But it was only a chance meeting between the head of the laboratory, and an agronomic engineer who was advising wool producers, that led to discussion of how the mechanism could be adapted for use in sheep farming.

This led to the launch of a joint research project, supported by a university programme and involving both university researchers and sheep producers. Following the completion of the programme and the successful application of its results, a close relationship was established between the laboratory and the organisation that advises and transfers technology to wool producers.

Subsequent projects have included research into the detection of the gene responsible for multiple births in sheep – an issue of great economic importance. The laboratory continues research and training in the fundamentals of its field of evolutionary biology, while at the same time acting as scientific advisor to the wool organisation.

Experience from this and other cases suggest that at least three elements are required if mutually beneficial partnerships are to emerge between industry and academic institutions:

  • Universities must have high-level research capabilities that allow them to participate effectively in the solution of complex problems that arise in the sphere of production
  • The business sector should have competent knowledge users
  • Research groups must be able to combine their commitment to long-term, academic research with external activities aimed at problem-solving

University 'models', research agendas and evaluation systems

Recent changes in the universities of developed countries suggest the emergence of an entrepreneurial model of academic research. [4] The key feature of this model is acceptance by universities that they have a responsibility not only to provide teaching and carry out research, but also to contribute directly to economic growth of the society in which they are embedded.

This new model is now being presented to developing countries as a way of fostering entrepreneurship among their researchers, of creating an awareness of the needs of businesses, and thus of attracting industry funding. Some successful examples to which this model has been applied include the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, and the University of Campinas in Brazil.

There are, however, various obstacles to the widespread adoption of the entrepreneurial model of a university in the developing word. For example, universities can introduce changes to facilitate and promote relationships with industry, and indeed many have already done so. But if the demand from industry for local knowledge production is weak and unchallenging, the result will probably be an underdeveloped entrepreneurial university.

Another source of difficulties, as indicated in the table, is that developing countries have, in general, few researchers, and, given the general lack of resources in such countries, these have to work with tight budgets. Relative isolation and modest research infrastructures make it particularly important for such researchers to become integrated into the world community of scholars.  But however important such integration may be from a scientific point of view, is often in conflict with efforts to establish links with local industry.

Table. Distribution of the world's GDP, population, research and development spending and academic researchers

  GDP Population R&D spending Researchers
Developed countries 61.1% 22.3% 84.4% 71.6%
Developing countries 38.9% 77.7% 15.6% 28.4%

Data from UNESCO [5]

Part of the problem is that a research agenda that addresses local needs is unlikely to attract attention from the world's academic community. This is mainly because of the wide gap between the problems faced in the developing word, and the issues that consume most of the attention of the international research agenda.

The situation is made worse by the fact that procedures for evaluating success in universities in developing countries usually measure achievement (and thus allocate rewards) in terms of success in publishing research results in mainstream publications. But such incentives can stifle locally-oriented research, the results of which are often difficult to publish in international scientific journals.

Towards a new role

Although the modern university is embedded in society, there is no one model of how this should be done most effectively. Several experiments have been tried; as far back as 1918, for example, a university reform movement launched in Cordoba, Argentina proposed a new role for universities in taking knowledge to deprived communities. [6]

What, then, would it mean in today's world for a university in the developing world to commit itself to a new role aimed at maximising the contribution of knowledge to development? Indeed what are the main challenges that would face what can be called a 'developmental university'[7]?

Four of these can be listed, illustrating the aims that they might seek to achieve, and the conditions to be met to make them meaningful:

  • High-level research and teaching activities need to be strengthened. Achieving this will require many more researchers and creatively trained students, as well as the opportunities for these researchers and students to work in their own countries.
  • Local needs must be included in research agendas. In particular, attention should be paid to the needs of local industry, and priority given to tackling social problems. Concomitant efforts must also be made to ensure that there is demand for the results of research and that potential users have the capabilities to implement them.
  • New assessment methods must be developed for university researchers that encourage research on local needs. This means that good research into problems of local relevance must be rewarded, irrespective of whether it achieves international acceptance or impact. But at the same time care must be taken to devise new and rigorous methods to evaluate academic work; and international isolation must be avoided at all costs.
  • Support must be provided for students and university staff to identify and commit to solving social and productive problems. As indicated above, in developing countries such individuals often have to work under strong and conflicting pressures. Universities should therefore take a proactive stance on issues to which their staff are committed. Humanities and social sciences can play an important role here, and should not be given second-class treatment, either by universities or governments.

Exactly how to address these key issues is unclear. But two first steps seem obvious. First, knowledge must be actively recognised as a vital issue for development. Second, a range of organisations – not only universities – must work together to meet the goals. This means that, in order to transform universities into better producers and diffusers of knowledge, business firms and institutions will need to be transformed as well, to stimulate a more challenging demand.

Forced changes, however, are unlikely to be successful in achieving this, and may even be damaging. Governments therefore have a central role in devising policies that foster the demand for knowledge, and helping other parties to use knowledge effectively. Businesses that are competent knowledge-users must become strong drivers of both the production and the distribution of knowledge. And universities in developed countries could, if linked to developmental universities with a sound research agenda of their own, provide assistance.

If well cultivated, a common commitment to development problems might evolve from all these links. For although universities are traditional institutions, they are also continuously evolving.

'Developmental universities' must therefore decide which traditions deserve keeping, and which new approaches are worth adopting. They must also combine long-term commitments to knowledge with short-term engagements with society.

The right combination cannot be achieved in isolation, and nor can it be imposed from outside or above. It can only grow out of dialogue both within and between universities and other actors.

 

References

[1] Arocena, R and Sutz, J. Interactive learning spaces and development problems, Druid Working Paper. http://www.druid.dk/wp/pdf_files/00-13.pdf (accessed Jan 27, 2005).
[2] Meyer, J-B. Policy implication of the brain’s drain changing face. http://www.scidev.net/dossiers/index.cfm?fuseaction=policybrief&do
ssier=10&policy=24
(accessed Jan 26, 2005).
[3] Cassiolato, J., Lastres, H, Maciel, M.L. (Editors) Systems of Innovation and Development. Evidence from Brazil, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK, 2003.  
[4] Etzkowitz, H. MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science, (Routledge Press, London, 2002).
[5] UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The State of Science and Technology in the World http://www.uis.unesco.org/file_download.php?URL_ID=4980&filena
me=10289086730WS_report_2001.pdf&filetype=application%2Fpdf&
filesize=695528&name=WS_report_2001.pdf&location=user-S/
, (accessed March 10, 2005)
[6] Arocena, R. and Sutz, J. (2005) "Latin American Universities: from an original revolution to an uncertain transition", Higher Education, forthcoming.
[7] Globelics Beijing. Authors Arocena, R. Gregersen, B.  and Sutz, J. “Universities in Transition. Challenges and Opportunities in Small Latin American and Scandinavian Countries”,
http://www.globelics-beijing.cn/paper/Rodrigo%20Arocena_Univers
ities%20in%20Transition.pdf