Supporting the research leaders of the future at the ACU Conference of University Leaders, 2016

In partnership with Vice-Chancellors' Ghana, The ACU Conference of University Leaders 2016 was hosted by the ACU in July this year. The main focus of the event was to bring together senior university staff to ‘debate key issues in higher education and explore shared solutions with a diverse range of international colleagues’. While the majority of attendees at the event were therefore high ranking university officials, one of the key themes under debate was how the next generation of university leaders could best be supported. I was privileged to attend the event and to jointly present, together with Professor Graham Furniss, the recently published ACU-British Academy report, ‘The next generation: ideas and experience in African researcher support’. We shared the panel with two early career researchers - Herine Otieno-Menya and Dr Olawale Olayide - also presenting their ideas and experience on support for early career researchers. Andrea Johnson from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, USA, provided the response to our presentations.

It was interesting to consider different forms of support for early career researchers and how this could be maximised to be most effective. There was also useful feedback from Ms Johnson on The Next Generation report, some of which we have already been considering for further development of the research and some of which could also be useful cross-cutting themes for much work with universities. For example, thinking of universities as systems (systems thinking is a topic currently – and rightly –hugely popular in the international development sector at the moment) and how support for early career researchers sits in that system. A topic touched upon in the report was whether it is more effective to approach change within this system from the faculty level, then involve institutional leadership, or vice versa. Perhaps this is best determined based on the type of institution, its culture and the particular entry point for the programme of support.

Again, reflecting the need to understand institutional context, the varying needs and objectives of researchers in different disciplines was highlighted (for example, in some disciplines the quantity of publications may be more important, for some it may be the use of cutting edge technology and in others ensuring the impact of research on policy may be more important). There were further questions around where support should be directed (also a topic we touched upon in researching the report). Should we be targeting just the most promising research or raising standards more broadly? What about teacher training as opposed to researcher training? The report made reference to the use of online learning, but perhaps there is the potential to also consider other modes of learning, such as split-site PhDs or PhDs by distance. Many of these points relate back to a key concept emphasised in the report: it is vital that early career researcher support is shaped by, and embedded in, the priorities of the academics (junior and senior), faculties and broader institutional and societal objectives. However, higher education institutes are, indeed, complex systems with complex needs so to do this effectively will need careful consideration and reflection.
Tawakalitu Bola Onifade, Caroline Moss, Victoria Tanimonure, Eunice Thomas and other delegates
In addition to sharing the panel with Dr Olayide, I was also very pleased to catch up with a number of early career researchers from the CIRCLE programme. Funding was very gratefully received from the National Research Foundation, South Africa, for several CIRCLE fellows to attend the event. The fellows made full use of the opportunity to join various sessions of interest and to broaden their networks. Several sent their gratitude and shared some of their highlights and reflections, some excerpts of which are captured below:

Dr Amos Apraku shared his appreciation of the measure of support for early career researchers and higher education in Africa:

It was gratifying to note governments, university leaderships and the Commonwealth as a political entity continue to place education and research at the centre of development in less-developed countries, particularly in Africa. Similarly, various funding institutions and scholarship awarding bodies are committed to this gesture (prioritisation of research and development) by continually making funding available to emerging  academics from poor countries with special focus on women. To whom much is given, much is expected; beneficiaries of various scholarships and research funding and their institutions are therefore expected to give back to society in the form of using research and technology to develop societies.
Amos Apraku, Caroline Moss and Benson Iweriebor
Dr Benson Iweriebor reflected on a number of the sessions of the conference as well as his first experience visiting Ghana and the opportunity to engage with different groups at the event:

The trip to Ghana was very eventful as it was my first time visiting that country. The conference was well organised and attended by eminent scholars from across Commonwealth nations from the Caribbean, to Asia, to Canada, Australia, Fiji, and Africa. I was privileged to meet many erudite scholars who were university administrators… I was also able to attend concurrent sessions throughout the conference: ‘Funding trends and opportunities’ and ‘Developing the new generation’ on the first day which culminated in a welcome party organised by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon. It was an opportunity to unwind and meet fellow attendees and we were entertained by the university’s cultural group where people danced to the rhythm of drums. Oh, I loved the way the delegates from Sri Lanka danced enthusiastically to the beating of the drums.

The second day of the conference… ended with a plenary entitled ‘Addressing historical injustice: from Rhodes to reparations’ with Profs Sir Hilary Beckles (VC, University of the West Indies) and Prof Adam Habib (VC, University of the Witwatersrand). Both talked about their experiences as university administrators on the issues of the slave trade and need for reparation following student protests to have the Rhodes statue in South Africa removed. To cap the day’s events, a gala dinner was held for delegates at the State House with The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC being the guest speaker. Delegates were treated to good music and a sumptuous dinner. It just felt like being home in Nigeria with my colleagues Dr Eunice Thomas, Apraku Amos, Bola Onifade and Victoria Tanimonure. I miss these great and amazing souls and thank CIRCLE and the NRF for giving me the possibility to meet them all.

Victoria Tanimonure shared how several sessions at the conference highlighted the importance of research uptake as part of the research process:

The concurrent session that benefitted me most was on the research uptake ‘Ensuring that research benefits society’. There are many research outputs wasting away on the shelf without transferring them to appropriate stakeholders that could benefit from them, thereby bringing university research into use. This has been my concern over the years. Sometimes I asked myself the usefulness of all this research work - are they just for our promotion and CVs? I think it is high time we did things differently in this regard. One of the speakers who shared her experience on research uptake from her university’s perspective mentioned that they have put in place in her institution an opportunity for research uptake starting from the departmental level, then to the faculty and institutional levels. I felt strongly in my heart that I can pioneer that from my department and faculty as soon as I return to my institution. To achieve this, I found the handbook by DRUSSA very helpful.

Also, the conference debate was really an interesting one and, to me, it still boiled down to the issue of research uptake: how society can benefit immensely from universities as they rise up to the task of social responsibilities. I am sure we still have a long way to go in Africa, and Nigeria in particular, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. We will get there. 

Dr Eunice Thomas shared how she had benefited from attending various sessions at the conference:

On the first day of the Programme, after the opening session and the keynote address by Kofi Annan, I attended a concurrent session where speakers shared with us on funding trends and opportunities in the UK, Sweden and USA. This was an eye-opener to various funding bodies and how to access them… In the afternoon, speakers talked about various aspects of development for upcoming researchers and the knowledge I garnered will be of a great benefit to me in my career.

The second day of the conference witnessed many sections.  Prof Crispus Kiamba talked about the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP) taskforce. He highlighted the current goals of CSFP, their operations and the endowment fund set up.  That same day, in the afternoon barriers and opportunities in Africa were discussed by 3 speakers.  Later, Accessibility and the various norms in selected universities were discussed.  I now have a better understanding of the operations of the Commonwealth Scholarship.

I am most grateful to the NRF for sponsoring me for this conference. I must say that you have equipped me with long term tools that will contribute immensely to my success in making a change in Africa in my career. It is a great privilege you have given me to interact with contacts from various fields all over the world.  Thank you once again.