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December 7, 2020

Transnational research capacity building: whose standards count?

"Transnational research capacity building: whose standards count?", by L. Madsen and H. K. Adriansen, explores transnational capacity building projects in higher education; in order to highlight some of the structural and processual challenges in decolonizing institutional spaces and power structures.



Research capacity building projects are transnational projects funded by a donor in the Global North, targeting universities in the Global South. Inevitably, these projects are embedded in various types of coloniality, as revealed by the capacity-building discourse itself. We offer a view from the Global North, by drawing on our own experiences of such projects and on a wider body of research involving Scandinavian research capacity-building projects in Africa (Adriansen 2020; Breidlid 2013; Fellesson and Mählck 2017; Mählck 2016, 2018b; Zink 2018).

For the past 30 years, Danida (Danish Development Assistance) has supported the capacity building of African higher education through different support modalities. We use two examples from these modalities to show that the understanding of excellence and quality that exists within research capacity-building projects is based on standards, norms and codes of the Global North, which are seen as universal without questioning whether they should be contextualized to suit African realities.

Using standards from the donor or the coloniser?

The first example concerns a Danish project focusing on improving PhD education in four West African countries (Madsen and Nielsen 2016). We show how the partners’ discussion of a good PhD dissertation did not compare and contrast styles in the four West African countries, but focused purely on the styles and standards of the donor (Denmark) versus those of the former colonial power (France). Thereby implying that appropriate standards and quality were only to be found outside the West African universities taking part. This is not surprising. As Dei (2014) has pointed out: ‘there is a particular understanding of excellence that reigns in the African university. With some exceptions, it is excellence defined in terms of a validation with Western intellectual codes, norms, and accreditation’ (Dei 2014, 165).

Is a good PhD supervisor the same everywhere?

The second example concerns a PhD supervision course provided by Danes for a number of East African scholars. It aimed to improve the supervisors’ skills using a generic, context-independent book. Thereby, the course, and we as teachers, were somehow blind to other ways of supervising and did not take into account the local context and issues, such as resources available. The participants did not question our choice of topics but instead appreciated them, which we interpret as evidence that standards of good supervision from the Global North had been endogenised at African universities, as argued by Whyte and Whyte (2016). But despite their appreciation and our best intentions, we realized that we had been involved in the standardization of academia.


In the article, we ask ‘Whose standards count?’. We conclude that many collaborative projects regard scientific knowledge and notions of excellence as universal, and therefore transferable, without considering an African academic context. Moreover, the mobility of scholars leads to the mobility of knowledge and norms, which may emphasise the notion of universality. More research from the Global South is needed to illustrate how the paradoxes and dilemmas of international research collaboration and capacity building are experienced and understood. In particular, we need more research from the Global South to illustrate how the paradoxes and dilemmas of international research collaboration and capacity building are experienced and understood.


  • Madsen, L.M. and Adriansen, H.K. (2020) Transnational research capacity building: Whose standards counts? Special issue on decolonizing the Academy, Critical African Studies.

  • Adriansen, H. K. 2020. “Materialities and Mobilities in Transnational Capacity Building Projects: Uneven Geographies of Knowledge Production.” Population, Space and Place, 26 (2), pp. 1–12. Available at: [Accessed 07 Dec 2020].

  • Breidlid, A. 2013. “Collaboration in University Development: North-South, South-North. A Norwegian Case.” Postcolonial Directions in Education, 2(2), pp. 355–380.

  • Dei, G. J. S. 2014. “Indigenizing the School Curriculum.” Chapter title. In: G. Emeagwali, and G. J. S. Dei, ed., African Indigenous Knowledge and the Disciplines, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 165–180.

  • Fellesson, M., and P. Mählck. 2017. “Untapped Research Capacities? Mobility and Collaboration at the Intersection of International Development Aid and Global Science Regimes.” International Journal of African Higher Education, 4(1), pp. 1–24.

  • Madsen, L. M., and T. T. Nielsen. 2016. “Negotiating Scientific Knowledge About Climate Change.” Chapter title. H. K. Adriansen et al., ed. Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The Geography and Power of Knowledge Under Changing Conditions, Derby: Routledge, pp. 147–168.

  • Mählck, P. 2016. “Academics on the Move? Gender, Race and Place in Transnational Academic Mobility.” Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 29784(2-3), pp. 1–12.

  • Mählck, P. 2018. “Vulnerability, Gender and Resistance in Transnational Academic Mobility.”Tertiary Education and Management, 24(3), pp. 254–265.

  • Whyte, M., and S. R. Whyte. 2016. “Dilemmas of Knowledge Production in Ugandan Universities.” Chapter title. H. K. Adriansen, et al., ed. Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The Geography and Power of Knowledge Under Changing Conditions, Derby: Routledge, pp. 41–57.

Written By

Lene Møller Madsen & Hanne Kirstine Adriansen
Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen / Danish School of Education, Aarhus University

Contact Details

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+0045 3532 0459 / 0045 9350 8015

Niels Bohr building
Universitetsparken 5
Copenhagen Ø

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