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Teaching University or Research University: More than a case of to be or not to be

05 Apr 2019 at 11:33hrs | Views
That our State Universities have modelled themselves mostly as teaching-focused universities where, the main activities are teaching and scholarship of learning and teaching, is a public secret. With a research/teaching balance tipped mostly to teaching, the most obvious consequence is an insignificant national economic impact, earning them the label of the ivory tower, in recognition of their separation from reality and the practical concerns of industry and nation.

Due to little or insignificant applied research, the impartation of fundamental life skills of critical, creative and design thinking (CCDT) to graduates largely remains a myth. This lack of CCDT skills in our graduates, in turn, cause captains of industry to quickly dismiss them as irrelevant to industry innovation ecology, being unable to pull their weight in industrial problem solving often requiring CCDT skills. The local industry then thrives on imported critical-creative designed solutions,  in a sad case of ‘exporting jobs'. The industry remains disappointed on their minimum expectation of universities as the source of academic knowledge transfers supporting business and industry innovation by way of a flow of relevant university-trained graduates, who are up to the challenge of even import substitution, value addition and beneficiation, all towards modernization and industrialisation.

Our Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development has awakened to the fact that Zimbabwe's year 2030 middle-income status economy must be born in university research laboratories by way of relevant scientific technology research and development, invention and innovation aimed at modernization and industrialisation of Zimbabwe. Therefore, for state university leadership the transformation from being teaching-focused to research state universities ceases now to be a case of to be or not to be and assumes national importance and urgency. Fortunately, our Honorable Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Professor Amon Murwira of the "useless degrees must go" fame is taking no prisoners. He has laid out clearly his thinking in the Education 5.0 papers, and this after initiating the building of Innovation Hubs in our state universities, such that at this juncture it is now left up to our state universities to demonstrate bold leadership down the path blazed by our Honorable Minister.

A successful research state university would boast of high levels of research and a research portfolio boasting of a good balance of pure and applied research.  The academic staff would double as both researcher and teacher but delivering mostly research-led teaching with their research/teaching balance tipped in serious favour of research and scholarship. For a research state university, performance impresses mostly in terms of a high level of external income from intellectual property (IPs), allowing the university to boast of a "fat purse" to attract best staff and students and support research infrastructure. Graduate education will be integrated with applied research for development and impartation of CCDT skills. Ideally, the number of undergraduate programs would be fewer to postgraduate research programs. Though a state-owned, a successful research state university would boast an international perspective through international collaborative technology research and development projects. This affords the research state university to gain an awareness of today's global challenges and opportunities in science and technology, politics and economics, and society and culture. However most critical to the success of a research state university is academic freedom facilitated by enlightened and bold university leadership.

Encouraging our state universities to shift focus from teaching to research for scientific-technological development is now all about national sustainable development and welfare. The National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) and Chinhoyi University of Technology could be immediate targets since the national demand for relevant scientific technology research and development, invention and innovation is in harmony with their character and nature as dictated by the Acts of Parliament that formed them. One way to achieve this about turn with NUST, HIT and CUT could be by encouraging the setting up of National Research Laboratories (NRL) within these institutions and simultaneously, Centres of Competence (CoC) in their paired polytechnics. At the onset, NUST would pair with Bulawayo Polytechnic, Harare Institute of Technology can pair with Harare Polytechnic while CUT is partnered with Kwekwe Polytechnic. Excellence in scientific technology research, development and invention will be demanded of the NRL while excellence in innovation will be required of both the NRL and partner CoC. This is so because by configuration the NRL, in terms of human capital, would host scientists, engineers and technologists while the CoC will provide the technicians/artisans. The NRL must focus on a specific research topic and also connect to industry for the purpose of drawing on human expertise to deliver innovations. The NRL must also enjoy some funding and administrative support from the government. As the number of NRLs continues to grow then the transformation in focus from teaching to research will be achieved.

It is on the much needed global perspective by way of mounting international collaborative technology research and development that bold leadership is demanded of state universities. Towards this end, a good start could be by way of perusing the memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with various countries targeting expediting the country's socio-economic recovery signed under the new dispensation.  This would include signed agreements on economic and technical co-operation and human resource development between foreign governments and Zimbabwe. Here, state universities must not lose sight of the fact that His Excellency The President ED Mnangagwa  is also their Chancellor and this fact could be leveraged upon extending even to securing international research staff exchanges by way of contact and sabbatical visits. Making a case for human resource development by way of relevant high level scientific technology research and development initiatives would be well received by the Chancellor.

Enock Jonathan is a Zimbabwean scientist and technologist reality contactable on

Source - Enock JONATHAN
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