The Future of University Development Cooperation. Perspectives of Leading Research Universities

Symposium, University of Leuven June 2 2017

Biomedical development cooperation at the KU Leuven

Fons Verdonck

Medical development cooperation of the KU Leuven has three goals:  1. strengthening of the research and education capacities of medical faculties, with focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) 2. improving the quality of care in medical centers and hospitals in Africa (Congo, Rwanda, Cameroun, Benin) 3. offering training facilities for medical students of KU Leuven in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and South-America. Because the topic of this symposium concerns “The Future of University Development Cooperation. Perspectives of Leading Research Universities” I will focus on our experiences in the field of clinical research, predominantly in the DRC, at the university of Kinshasa (UNIKIN).  The main activity in restoring clinical research in the DRC concerns providing grants for medical PhD students and to bring them in contact with research facilities and a (co)promotor in Leuven.

Actually four organizations at the KU Leuven provide research grants for African medical students: 1/ VLIR-UOS, with participation of KU Leuven in different programs of VLIR-UOS in Congo (UC Bukavu, UNIKIN, UNIKIS) 2/the IRO (Interfaculty Council for Development Cooperation) 3/ the Alumni Association for Development Cooperation of the Faculties of Medicine and Pharmaceutical Sciences 4/ the Marc Vervenne Foundation. Most of PhD grants, with participation of researchers of KU Leuven, are provided for Congolese PhD students. All grants are of the “sandwich”-type with a yearly short stay in Leuven (3 months at the maximum) for 4-6 years, except PhD full-time grants from the IRO. Doctoral theses are defended at the KU Leuven or at the University of Kinshasa.

Over the last 5 years 18 theses have been defended, from which 17 in Faculties of Medicine and 1 in Pharmacy with 16 from Kinshasa.  Nine were defended in Kinshasa, one in Lubumbashi, and one in Kisangani. Six have passed the doctoral school of Leuven, and one of UGhent. The work of 17 (16 from UNIKIN) is in progress; of these, two will finish in 2017. Thus, in total, 35 Congolese, predominantly medical, students, mostly from the University of Kinshasa, collaborated with a (co)promotor from the Faculty of KU Leuven between 2012-2017. In comparison, between 1970-1995, 24 Congolese medical students obtained a PhD at the KU Leuven.

It is important to mention here that these numbers are not the result of a well-designed university policy from the KU Leuven towards the DRC or from the VLIR-UOS with special injections of money. No PhD was attained with one single grant. It could be only achieved by simultaneous contributions of different organizations mentioned above, different departments of UZ Leuven, and by the candidates themselves. We tried to detect and to solve specific, mostly financial, problems to finish successfully.
Obstacles for succeeding a PhD are multifold in the context of the RDC. The most important structural obstacle is the absence of any financial support from the government for research.  All research that is related to PhD work has to be financed by the candidates themselves. In addition to financial problems min-points that complicate the finding of motivated promotors at our universities: the older age of Congolese PhD students, their rather poor knowledge of English (although this is rapidly improving), and, in general, the loss of interest for specific Sub-Saharan matters.  We learned that PhD grants are generally too short to succeed.
Learning from the past, and knowing the precarious situation of performing a PhD in the DRC it is important to recognize the necessity to care the postdoctoral phase. If no postdoctoral program is available the efforts performed for succeeding during the PhD phase will rapidly be lost and capacity building will be an illusion. This is one of the main reason why the previous generation failed to construct a successful succession.

The second goal of medical development cooperation at the KU Leuven is performed by LUMOS (Leuvense Universitaire Medische Ontwikkelingssamenwerking en Solidariteit).  In LUMOS the biomedical faculties and the university hospital found each other for common development projects. The purpose of this project is to train the medical and paramedical staff of concerned hospitals to improve the quality of clinical care.  In Congo the project is performed in collaboration with the NGO Memisa, in Benin with Memisa and Doctors without Vacation. The training program includes an exchange of expertise between collaborators of Leuven and our collaborating hospitals in Africa. In 2016 doctors, nurses, technicians were active in hospitals in Benin, Cameroun, Congo and Rwanda. Medical and paramedical staff from these hospitals obtained training in UZ Leuven, and interactive network of training was organized in the DRC, with the Hospital St Luc of Kisantu, Kongo Central, as central training center. In the future, we will try to combine both goals in Congo by implicating peripheral hospitals in research topics and incorporating PhD and postdoc students in training programs of these hospitals.

In conclusion: we could show that scientific collaboration between medical faculties, even in a fragile state as the DRC, is possible, and that it can contribute to a next generation of scientists and teachers. We hope that contacts can be intensified so that a longstanding collaboration can be realized. On the longer term the success of supporting PhD’s, can only sustained if a postdoctoral program is installed. Most of these results are realized by voluntarism, enthusiasm and sponsorships by many people. To maintain future collaboration, there is an urgent need for a more structural approach at the level of faculties and universities in Congo as well as in Belgium.