How can we improve research capacity strengthening in Africa through UK-funded fellowships and scholarships?

How can we improve research capacity strengthening in Africa through UK-funded fellowships and scholarships?
3 March, 2020

Yaso Kunaratnam and Jeff Waage

Yaso Kunaratnam, UKCDR and Jeff Waage, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reflect on how their latest mapping and analysis of UK funded fellowships and scholarships in Africa will improve research capacity strengthening and contribute to the UK Government’s new partnerships with Africa.

Today saw the launch of UKCDR’s latest report – ‘A mapping and analysis of UK-funded fellowships and scholarships for Africa’. It contains a high-level analysis of UK funding in fellowships and scholarships for research capacity strengthening (RCS) in Africa, achieved through rapid mapping that myself and my team took on last year, with special advice and much-valued inputs from Jeff.

The UK has a long history of supporting research capacity strengthening in Africa through fellowship and scholarship schemes. Through this mapping and analysis, we aimed to increase the visibility of these investments to help identify gaps and opportunities for better coordination.

Coming hot on the tails of our three country-level reports on Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, published in January, we are telling the bigger story of the UK’s collective funding for international development research to underpin future UK investments and partnership activities and support the UK Government’s new partnerships with African countries.

This is the first study, to the best of our knowledge, on UK national level investments into fellowships and scholarships in Africa. The report is available on the UKCDR website.

We mapped and analysed 17 UK-funded fellowship and scholarship schemes, looking at UK investments in Masters, PhD, Postdoctoral and Early Career awards, institutions, countries, themes and gender balance; as well as learning on selection processes, management and evaluation and impact of schemes over the last five years. We convened a diverse network of 40 UK funders, implementing partners and fellows/scholars in Africa to reflect on the analysis and make recommendations for the future.

Our findings show that over the last five years:

  • The UK invested over £190.8m into supporting 5,633 African fellows and scholars.
  • Over 75% of awards were directed to Master’s level training, particularly in the UK, with the trend for newer schemes to support Africa-based PhD, postdoctoral and early career training.
  • Most awards were to a small set of six African countries: Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Egypt and Uganda; and thematically, most awards were in Medical and Health

There are three key themes that we also saw emerge from our work:

  • Future datasets: Our analysis did not include awards associated with UK-supported research grants. While inclusion of these would help us understand the full extent and pattern of UK-funded support, collecting this additional data would be very challenging. However, the project has enabled several organisations to reflect on how and what data they collect, and funders could consider how to inform data collection in the future.
  • Merit vs equity: Schemes apply a merit-based approach which select high-achieving and highly-motivated candidates. However, many schemes in the UK do make special efforts to engage with applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds and conflict-affected regions but, understandably, this can be very expensive. Where schemes have made an effort in this area it involves staff on the ground (e.g. in refugee camps) to aid recruitment. Merit vs equity is a tension that implementing partners regularly experience in allocation of fellowships when their remit is to promote excellence in science.
  • Individual vs institutional RCS – There was a wider challenge of linking RCS at the individual level (where schemes are focused) and the institutional level. It may be useful to compare where the UK is investing in fellowships and scholarships and where the UK is funding research and RCS programmes across countries, to identify potential links and alignment.  Our recent mapping of UK investments and partnerships in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa shows that fellowships investments overlaps with these countries. Future consideration could also be given to improve equity and allocation of awards to countries and institutions with lower levels of research capacity.

So what does this mean for UK funders?

Looking forward, five key opportunities were identified to add value to UK investments including sharing good practice across schemes and strengthening support across the pipeline of research careers in Africa. UKCDR will be working with the SCOR Board and UKCDR Officials Group to look at the feasibility and potential next steps with the recommendations.

We have shared the results with the international Donor Harmonization Group (an informal network that brings together European agencies that administer aid-funded capacity building programmes in education) the UK cross-HMG scholarships group, and ESSA, an educational NGO, who have recently mapped the top 50 scholarship providers in Africa for the Global Monitoring Education report which will be launched in April 2020.

We hope this analysis will help to inform future delivery of existing and new programmes and strengthen investments in the future.

Watch this space as this year UKCDR also plans to produce an output on UK-funded RCS in LMICs looking across the individual, institutional and environmental/systems levels, to help increase visibility of the broader RCS landscape.

Image credit: Kaushik Chowdavarapu via Unsplash

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