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Despite TETfund intervention, research in tertiary institutions still poor, experts say

This News was culled from The Guardian News Publication of 3rd June, 2021

The present-day world relies on an economy that enjoys a symbiotic relationship between town and gown. Research from the university, for example, feeds the Silicon Valley, which serves as the factory that conceptualises and markets these ideas. In Nigeria, research development seems a mirage. Could lack of funding be responsible? Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, reports.

The nation’s tertiary institutions have three statutory functions — teaching, research and community service. While more attention is given to teaching, little effort is committed to research. Nigerian universities, which should exist as centres for research, knowledge dissemination and creation haven’t delivered on their full responsibilities.

Regrettably, research in Nigerian institutions is not given the priority it deserves because of poor funding of the education sector. Funding of universities generally and research, in particular, is inadequate. This condition partly accounts for lecturers’ inability to access research fund.

As a result, giant strides have not been recorded from the research efforts of the universities. Besides, the bulk of university research in Nigeria is driven by demand for publication towards career advancement.

Every year, scores of Nigerian academics fail to secure funding for their research and a few do rarely get what they need. The country has a government agency tasked with utilising education taxes corporations pay to fund research. Some lecturers complained that the procedure shuts them out, while some officials of the research agency, Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETfund) alleged that the quality of research papers submitted are mostly inadequate.

TETfund: Help or hindrance?
THE Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETfund) was established as an intervention agency under the TETFund Act, 2011 and charged with the responsibility for managing, disbursing and monitoring the education tax to public tertiary institutions.
 
To enable TETfund to achieve its objectives, the Act imposes a two per cent Education Tax on the assessable profit of all registered companies in Nigeria.
 
According to section 7 of the act, the mandate of the fund is to disburse the funds to federal and state tertiary educational institutions, for the provision and maintenance of essential physical infrastructure for teaching and learning, instructional materials and equipment.

Other objectives include research and publication, academic staff training and development and other needs essential for the improvement of quality and maintenance of standards in higher educational institutions.

TETfund ensures education tax is utilised to improve quality of learning through the provision of educational facilities and infrastructural development, promoting creative and innovative approaches to educational learning and services and stimulating, supporting and enhancing improvement activities in educational foundation areas like President Mohammadu Buhari last year increased TETFund National Research Fund (NRF) to N7.5 billion, from an initial N3 billion. The approval made the agency the largest holder of research grants in Nigeria.

But the noble objective notwithstanding, some lecturers said the process of accessing the fund is difficult.

For A. K. Yusuf of the Department of Basic and Applied Sciences, Hassan Usman Katsina Polytechnic, Katsina State, research in Nigeria’s institutions is yet to make a real impact on the technological advancement of the country and the socio-economic well being of its citizenry.

He listed some of the constraints hampering the realisation of research goals as inadequate and irregular funding, poor motivation, poor or obsolete research infrastructure, brain drain and rising workload resulting from deteriorating staff/student ratio.

Besides, he lamented that there are still yawning gaps in functional use of the product of successful research from the nation’s universities, which is different from what obtained in other countries of the world.

Yusuf said: “In the United States, for example, the State of California has one of the largest economies in the world. It generates much of its revenue from absorbing and domesticating most of the intellectual output from its premier university, Stanford University, into commercial products.

“Much of the economy revolves around a symbiotic relationship between town and gown. Research from the university feeds the Silicon Valley, which serves as the factory that conceptualises and markets these ideas. It has seen the rise of multinational companies like Apple, Cisco, HP, Facebook and Oracle, among others, with budgets larger than many African countries. This synergy is sorely lacking in Nigeria,” he added.

Yusuf stated that though it has been recommended that five per cent of the gross national product be set aside for research, the federal university system spends only 1.3 per cent of its budget on research.

He attributed the shortfall in research funding to a yearly increase in enrolment in universities, which he maintains, overwhelms the government’s capacity to maintain proportional support for research and other services.

So, despite a substantial annual increase in the government’s recurrent grant to federal universities, Yusuf said they are still short of financial resources to maintain quality education.

Experts stressed the need to improve the quantity and quality of research outputs from higher institutions while adding that the focus of research should be in line with national needs as well as knowledge-and demand-driven to aid national development.

They also identified inadequate funding and stringent conditions attached to research grants as major constraints to accessing research funds by lecturers and recommended that government should increase its research funding to universities while universities should develop modalities for identifying and disseminating information to lecturers on research funding opportunities and requirements for accessing them.

In addition, they noted that the stringent conditions attached to research grants, lack of information, time frame for meeting the requirements, difficulty in the retirement process as well as inadequate training on writing research proposals are part of the challenges hindering lecturers from accessing the funds.

For better results, they called on the government to increase its funding to universities especially research while easing conditions for accessing the grants.

Former Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, noted that without a multi-discipline research agenda/plan, especially in the sciences, engineering and medicine, the country may not make a lot of progress despite having so many research grant available.

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Okebukola said: “The world of today and of tomorrow is one of multi-disciplinarity. If research is to make a significant impact at the national regional and global levels, several disciplinary actors must be called to duty. If, as an agriculturist, you are researching a problem relating to food security, you need to probe its impact on the economy and sociology of the community. So, you will need an economist and a sociologist in your team. I am always suspicious of single-author research publications, especially from our side of the world. Experience has shown that data from such research are of doubtful integrity. However, with many more scholars in the team, chances of cooking data are near zero, except of course, if all members of the team are of the same crooked ilk.

“I find it amusing when people refer to N7.5 billion as a huge and massive research grant. This money will only scratch the surface of serious research that addresses some of our scientific and medical challenges. It is less than the grant to support research by a small research team at MIT or Harvard! What Nigeria should do is to take the TETFund grant as a component of the larger purse of grants available nationally. If we reduce corruption and leakages in the financial system, a lot will be available to Nigerian researchers, and we would not have to depend on TETFund as the major, indeed the sole financier of research in our universities.

“Besides, our researchers should be equipped with skills to write grant-winning proposals to access the huge funds available for research in the global donor space,” Okebukola added.

Vice-Chancellor, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, said the institution has attracted N12 billion research grants in the last three and half years.

Ogundipe, who identified research as one of the university’s major area of focus geared towards the nation’s development said: “Just recently, one of the lecturers in our college of medicine attracted a research grant of $2 million from Bill Gates. I also recently attracted a research grant of 38,000 euros, with my mentee getting another 8,000 euros. Another lecturer in the department of architecture also recently won a research grant of £12,000; so, it is not only about infrastructure, we are also deep into research.

“We will continue to improve in knowledge, research and ultimately in improving mankind and national development,’’ he said.

Pro-Chancellor, Chrisland University, Abeokuta, Prof Ayodeji Olukoju, said since the grants are limited, competition from scholars is always keen as only a small number of grants are disbursed in each cycle. “It means that many otherwise deserving projects cannot be funded.”

He expressed regrets that many scholars are yet to master what it takes to win grants, especially the competitiveness and merit of their research proposals, quality and relevance of publications, budget and compliance with guidelines.

“One consequence of this is that some scholars simply give up after failing a few times,” Olukoju added.

On ways of improving lecturers’ access to research, the Pro-Chancellor said institutions should regularly organise capacity building workshops to train academic staff in the art and science of “grantsmanship,” including integrity in financial management and reporting.

He said: “Grant application has its rules that must be mastered. Often, one learns a lot from other people’s experiences, both positive and negative. If the project or proposal is compelling and competitive, it is likely to be shortlisted and funded. Joint applications are favoured and usually better funded. Scholars should publish internationally incredible outlets (especially in high-impact journals) to strengthen their applications. Attending and presenting papers at international conferences gives young researchers exposure to new ideas and debates in their field. They should join networks, building on contacts made through conference attendance and other forms of intellectual engagements.

“Younger scholars should collaborate with more experienced researchers, who have a track record of winning grants, as their principal investigators. On the part of the government, more funds should be voted and special attention given to under-represented disciplines, especially in humanities, which are poor cousins of the sciences, which are globally better funded by a mile,” Olukoju said.

He explained that government is the main funding body for research and Funds are never enough, especially for expensive projects in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medical disciplines (STEM).

“The general trend is that most of the grants, both local and foreign, are won by scholars in the natural and, to a slightly lesser extent, social sciences. In virtually all cases, the funding bodies dictate the agenda or scope of the research, such as reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, peace and conflict (herder-farmer), (in) security (terrorism and insurgency), demography, climate change and environmental challenges, youth and urban planning among others.”

On his part, Prof Femi Ogbimi said instead of focusing on new research works, government and institutions should be more concerned with utilising research works carried out by Nigerian academics in the last 50 years.

“Is it because there are no relevant results to solve our problems that Nigeria is failing? No and yes. No because the truth is that Nigerian leaders are not interested in developing Nigeria to be a nation. So, they do not care for the relevant research results that are available. The offices of the President, vice, governors and lawmakers do not acknowledge memos. Our leaders would rather deal with foreigners than Nigerians. They would rather embrace claims that would not lead to development. That is why Nigeria is failing. We have a solution for the present crisis. Our research efforts produced the solution,” he added.

For Professor of Economics, Sheriffdeen Tella, many public and private universities in the past, set aside money for research in their budgets but stopped when generating funds to meet running costs became difficult.

Prof Tella lamented that most young academics don’t carry out research, particularly those in science and engineering because facilities are not there. He however noted that only a few that have the opportunity for international connections for joint research still do some research works. “They also go about teaching from one institution to another because of shortage of staff and the need to meet up with growing living expenses. Those in social sciences and humanities generally use internet facilities for research at their own expenses. So, don’t expect any major breakthrough from young Nigerian academics working here.”

He tasked departments and faculties to organise workshops on grantsmanship for younger academics to learn and be globally competitive so that they can get international grants in the absence of domestic ones.
Besides, he tasked older academics to mentor the younger ones that are ready for mentorship, while the younger academics should see their value in landmark inventions and recognition.

The scholar however pointed out that writing saleable research proposals is difficult for many academics, so less than 30 per cent actually get grants.

Prof Tella expressed regrets that the sources of grants are limited and highly competitive.

“The sources for funding research by academics in Nigeria are internal and external. The major internal source is TETFund. Before now, many public and private universities vote for money for research in their budget but that was long time ago for public universities that presently have to generate money to meet some running costs. For external, there are research grants by the international community, which are highly competitive globally,” he stated.

Former Vice-Chancellor, Joseph Ayo Babalola University (JABU), Ilesha, Prof Sola Fajana, listed some of the challenges hindering access to research grant as lack of skill, competence and experience to effectively compete for grants; difficulties and unwillingness to comply with accountability requirements of some research funders and structural information issues precluding researchers from getting to know specific needs of an industry that may attract industry funding.

“In most cases, a dominant principle is that researchers should not draw salary or remuneration from the research project – so what is in it for the researchers?”

To address some of the challenges, Fajana suggested an increase in the human capacity of researchers, by learning a skill and requisite competence for grantsmanship; availing small grants to young researchers to enable them to acquire experience to effectively compete for grants later in their career, make procedures of accounting for received grants to reduce unwillingness to comply with the accountability requirements of research funders; provide small salary from the research project – to make it worth the while of researchers to seek funding, while there should be liaison between researchers and industry to know their specific needs.

He identified some sources of research to TETFUND; Senate central research grants; industry commissioned research; foundations, international NGOs and agencies of United Nations like Ford Foundation, Heinrich Bols, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, CODESRIA, Social Science Research Council; thesis support and self sponsorship.

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