As we celebrate African University Day on 12 November 2020 amid a global health pandemic, universities on the continent should increase their efforts to collaborate in research, learning and teaching, and scholarship, writes PROF HESTER KLOPPER, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy and Internationalisation at Stellenbosch University.
Over the past few decades, the demand for higher education in Africa has increased and today universities across the continent participate in the global knowledge economy and have partnerships across the world.
While South African universities' internationalisation efforts have mostly been focused on building partnerships with universities in Europe and America, in recent years the attention has increasingly turned to institutions in the rest of Africa.
Collaborations and partnerships between African universities have come a long way. Already in September 1963, the establishment of the Association for African Universities (AAU) aimed, among its other strategic goals and objectives, to bring together heads of African higher education institutions to ensure greater collaboration. It is also the AAU that in 2005 established African University Day as a means of reflecting on the progress, challenges and opportunities of higher education in Africa.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about many additional challenges for African universities, especially in rapidly moving from face-to-face to online lectures in a context where students often struggle with access to data and other technologies to participate in teaching and learning in a digital space. Challenges such as this provide us with the opportunity to increase our efforts in collaborating in order to find African solutions for African problems, whether it be specifically those related to the work of universities or research that addresses challenges in anything from healthcare to engineering.
Besides the work done by the AAU, several universities on the continent have formed partnerships on various levels with one another. At Stellenbosch University (SU), the Centre for Collaboration in Africa has established the SU Africa Platform, which is a community for prospective and current students and staff, researchers, partner institutions, governments, business and members of the public interested in academic and research opportunities at SU. It also provides a platform to nurture sustainable partnerships with other institutions on the continent.
SU's vision is to become Africa's leading research-intensive university with a global impact, and we have therefore shifted our focus to developing and nurturing partnerships with universities and research institutions specifically in the rest of Africa. Annually, academics from SU participate in numerous internationalisation activities in more than 30 countries on the African continent with approximately 100 institutions.
Today, we have formal bilateral partnership agreements with 26 higher education institutions in Africa, which grant students and staff access to exchange programmes, full-degree programmes, research collaborations and staff exchange opportunities, while SU's African Doctoral Academy promotes scholarship on the continent through its training programmes.
Although many South African university have collaborations in the rest of Africa, this is where the emphasis should be when it comes to internationalisation: on expanding our footprint in the rest of Africa, because African countries share many challenges and opportunities for us to learn from, especially within the fields of healthcare, economy and education.
This year, COVID-19 has laid bare many of these similarities in the challenges that African countries face due to the pandemic, especially concerning access to healthcare and education. And although the repercussions of restricted economic activity during lockdowns across the world have been severe, it has been especially damaging to the emerging economies of most of the countries on our continent.
The higher education sector has the capabilities to play a central role in addressing these challenges through research and teaching and learning. While this has for long been the focus of engaged scholarship, the challenges on our continent can benefit from greater collaboration between universities on the continent.
Such collaborations are mutually beneficial in that it allows us to debate our challenges and collectively find solutions. In turn, these solutions have the ability to impact policy and leadership, even though the contexts of countries may differ vastly.
Collaborations between African universities provide us with a stronger voice in research and scholarship, which increases and advances our individual profiles in the international arena.
The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), established in March 2015, has made strides in facilitating collaboration between African universities with regards to research, with SU being home to its Centre of Excellence in Energy. Its aim has been to expand and enhance the quality of the research done in Africa. Also, the projects that have been established focus on solving the unique challenges that Africa face.
Other thematic networks also include the Partners Enhancing Resilience for People Exposed to Risks (PeriPeri-U), with a network of 13 universities across the continent focussing on disaster risk reduction and the AUDA-NEPAD Southern African Network of Water Centres of Excellence (SANWATCE), which focuses on addressing SADC water sector needs through a partnership with 11 Southern African universities and research institutions.
Such alliances and networks bring together the best researchers on the continent and collaboration provides an opportunity to pool resources, and for this reason SU hosts the SU African University Day Seminar on 12 November 2020 with the theme “Nurturing Sustainable African Partnerships".
As we recognise Africa Universities Day this year, we should reflect on how we can make a deeper impact on communities across Africa. For South African universities, this means directing our internationalisation efforts towards our own continent.
We now have the structures, such as the AAU and ARUA, and the time has come to work strategically with researchers, partner institutions, government and business to solve challenges in Africa with tailor-made solutions developed here in Africa.
As Africans we have the talent and capabilities to develop our continent and address our challenges through purposeful collaborations and partnerships, thereby creating a better future for all who live in our continent.