How Ugandan universities can improve their rankings

Jun 19, 2017

In order for Uganda’s universities to increase their research outputs, the government should champion an incentive policy.

By Samson Rwahwire

Uganda currently has 11 degree-awarding higher institutions of learning and over 30 private universities,however, when it comes to global ranking of universities, only Makerere University (Mak) the country's oldest University is cited.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) University rankings placed Mak third in Africa. Although Mak is doing so well, according to the Scopus database, the College of Health Sciences is by far the leading publishing entity of Mak whereas other colleges have only a handful of publications in Scopus. 

The rest of the universities in Uganda have zero presence in Scopus and probably that explains why they don't appear in other international rankings!

Scopus is the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature (scientific journals, books and conference proceedings). It delivers a comprehensive overview of the world's research output in the fields of science, technology, medicine, social sciences, and arts and humanities.

The role of incentives to publish
Worldwide, many national governments have put in place various policies providing incentives for researchers to publish especially in international impact factor journals.

SCImago, an organisation that indexes and ranks leading institutions and journals, lists the top 10 academic publishing nations as USA, China, UK, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy, India and Spain. That notwithstanding, it's worth noting that the US share of publications keeps on reducing, whereas that of other countries such as China is skyrocketing!

The United States has for a long time had a rigorous system of appointment and tenure of academics usually tied to research potential as well as output through publications.

In their article, "Changing Incentives to Publish," by Chaira Franzoni, Giuseppe Scellato, and Paula Stephan, that appeared in the August 5 issue of the journal Science in 2011, the researchers reported that incentives to researchers that reward publication success with direct cash bonuses were common in China, Korea and Turkey.

 In order to remain competitive and probably to have a good image from the Chinese government, it is reported that in research centered universities in China, recruitment, tenure and promotion are increasingly determined by the number of publications an individual has in a selective list of journals relevant to discipline and university rankings.

Furthermore, universities give cash bonuses as well as housing benefits and other bonuses for high profile publications (Mei Tian et al., 2016). I have interfaced with colleagues who have passed through Chinese universities and they have admitted to having received clean cash worth 1000 - 2000 USD (3.5 - 7m shillings) per paper published in SCI journals.

The UK has a system of Research Assessment Exercise which grades institutions based on research and the indicators are pegged on the number of manuscripts published. UK's system was further replicated by New Zealand, Australia and even South Africa.

South African universities are awarded an annual subsidy from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) based on research publication output, a significant proportion of which is composed of journal article publications.

The journal article subsidy is based on the number of journal output units generated by the University, calculated from the number of research publications in DHET approved journals and the proportional contribution of authors from the University. This subsidy provides financial incentive to increase research output.

Consequently, several South African Universities have replicated DHET's model of incentives, for example, information from Stellenbosch University website in South Africa shows that the university rewards both publication units (as recognised by the Department of Higher Education and Training) as well as creative outputs through financial incentives.

An amount is awarded annually for publication units (journal articles, books and book chapters, published proceedings) that qualify for a subsidy from the Department of Higher Education and Training. The amount awarded is determined annually by each Subcommittee and paid into the respective central research accounts of the qualifying department/institute / bureau/center / division / identified group. No application is required for this funding, but outputs must have been submitted and approved during the annual survey for research outputs.

The paradigm shift
In order for Uganda's universities to increase their research outputs, the government should champion an incentive policy. I propose that the Department of Higher Education (DHE) of the Ministry of Education and Sports should budget for the incentives.

For example, for the start of 2018/2019 fiscal year, the DHE can budget say sh1 billion for the publication incentives whereby each publication in a SCI/ISI indexed impact factor journal attracts sh5m; universities will have to compete for the funds through submission of already published articles.

Universities can as well replicate the policies by having annual awards to staff who publish in highly acclaimed international journals.

 According to the study by Mei Tian, It's therefore evident that incentives to publish are strongly associated with increases in submissions and publications at the country level. Career incentives are positively correlated not only with submissions but also with publications, which suggests that they encourage faculty to submit their best work to journal with high impact factors.

A promise for promotion if one published in high impact factor journals leads to hard work knowing that after publishing, there will be career growth.
If the DHE and universities implement the publication incentives, I am convinced we shall see a rise of Uganda's universities in the international rankings and research output. This will not only lead to researchers solving the country's problems but will also lead to development.

Writer is a senior lecturer, faculty of engineering - Busitema University and a member of the Critical Thought Group

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