NOMA summer school: Balancing integrity and the ‘dirty’ world of research

Mari Elken and Jens Jungblut  (Hedda/HEIK, University of Oslo)

Mari Elken and Jens Jungblut
(Hedda/HEIK, University of Oslo)

In the end of January a group from Hedda consisting of both professors, PhD research fellows, Master students and administrative staff attended a summer school organised in Cape Town, South Africa. The focus of the summer school was on project management and writing applications, and in this post Mari Elken and Jens Jungblut summarise the overall experience and some of the lessons learned. 

The article was initially published at University World News and is republished with permission. 

Furthermore, as Hedda has focus on sharing knowledge through ICT solutions, we have recorded the various sessions and will be making some of them available on the Hedda site during the coming week. Stay tuned! 

One thing you almost never learn in masters or PhD education is how the world of successful project applications really works. In the context of unstable and competitive funding sources and expectations of impact and societal relevance, the nature of academic work is changing. New job profiles emerge, with academics being expected to be more entrepreneurial, project management becoming a central skill and policy relevance emerging as a key funding criterion.

While policy relevance is expected, linkage between research and policy – the so-called research-policy nexus – is not always straightforward or without contestation. This raises questions about the appropriate skills and competences for the next generation of researchers, who have to operate at the intersection between traditional academic work, policy advice and contract research.

Higher education is increasingly considered a ‘transversal problem solver’ for most of society’s ills, in developed and developing countries alike. In addition, higher education research with its multidisciplinary core does not have a unified message for policy-makers and is unable to provide single-solution answers to their questions.

From principles to practice

These are some of the reasons why the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, Norway’s University of Oslo, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and the Centre for Higher Education and Transformation (CHET) in Cape Town recently organised a summer school for masters and PhD students in the field of higher education studies.

The summer school, titled “From Principles to Practice: Higher education policy and research project management”, was held from 20-25 January in Cape Town and had over 40 participants from five continents and 22 countries. In addition to PhD and masters students, the participants included senior researchers, project coordinators and practitioners from funding agencies.

The summer school was held in the context of NOMA – the Norad Programme for Master Studies. NOMA is a Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education-funded project carried out by the partner institutions. The project’s aim is to educate masters students in the field of higher education studies and foster research cooperation between the partner universities. The programme is jointly coordinated by Peter Maassen (Oslo), Nico Cloete (director of CHET), Gerald Ouma (Western Cape) and Patricio Langa (Eduardo Modlane).

During an intensive week the participants were exposed to an innovative learning environment. This included a combination of lectures, workshops and group assignments, all of which contributed to a flexible curriculum that incorporated both theoretical and practical approaches.

A unique aspect of the course was that the participants of the summer school were given the opportunity to attend a one-day seminar that brought together researchers, institutional leaders and policy-makers from South Africa to debate the issue of higher education differentiation.

Prior to the differentiation seminar, the participants followed lectures on the mismatch of communication structures between academics and policy-makers. The lectures also included a debate on how to manage the communication divide. Having access to the differentiation seminar further exemplified how one of the core themes of the course, the research-policy nexus, manifests in the context of South Africa.

Shifting balances, conflicting interests

In the opening lectures of the summer school, the participants were introduced to current debates and trends related to the changing nature of research and academic work. This included the shifting balance between applied versus basic ‘blue sky’ research, as well as the growing importance of strategic research funding.

The real-life messiness of acquiring and managing large-scale international research projects was illustrated in presentations by four senior researchers coordinating such projects. This gave students practical examples and tips on how to navigate the field of competitive funding applications, the so-called ‘dirty’ world of research. This implies that in addition to writing an academically solid proposal, one has to balance the sometimes conflicting practical interests of funders, societal relevance and academic integrity.

In order to get first-hand experience of how to actually write a successful project proposal, the participants were assigned to groups that worked throughout the week on developing applications for both competitive research council and open foundation calls. This group exercise exemplified how the different interests of funding agencies lead to varying expectations of proposals.

By combining PhD and masters students in the same groups, a unique joint learning platform was established. The groups had an opportunity to gain feedback on a daily basis and competed with one another to hand in the best proposal. This led to lively debates within the groups and a competitive as well as constructive atmosphere. The proposals were evaluated by professionals with extensive experience from funding agencies and senior researchers with experience in leading research projects. The group that received the highest score was given the opportunity to receive guidance for further work on their proposal and to develop it into a full project application.

A positive experience

The feedback from participants regarding the summer school was overwhelmingly positive. The seminar was developed according to the principal that one learns best by doing, and the participants appreciated this hands-on approach to one of the core skills for successful future research careers.

In addition, the carefully selected cultural experiences added to participants’ understandings of issues South African society is facing, especially concerning education. Furthermore, the opportunity to meet fellow junior researchers from around the world created an arena for discussions and possible future collaborations.

The importance of the skills addressed by the summer school and the positive feedback by the participants underlines the fact that the event was both necessary and timely – and this was also expressed in the wish by the participants that the summer school would be continued.