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Opinion: More intra-Africa university collaborations are needed

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is head of the division for internationalisation and professor of communication studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

She recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the University World News on 30 November 2023.

As a university in Africa and a university in the Global South, my own university, the University of Johanneburg in South Africa, strives to be at the forefront of finding solutions and applying knowledge to local and global challenges – and we are not alone.

Across the globe and the continent, universities are emphasising research that talks to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals and grand challenges; and increasingly universities and higher education institutions are finding ways of strengthening their research and impact through international partnerships, membership in international university networks and university consortia.

However, if we look at our own continent, we see less intra-Africa cooperation and fewer network collaborations and university consortia between African universities than between African universities and institutions in other regions.

Compared to Western Europe, which for many African universities constitutes the region for the largest uptake of partnerships, we are behind in terms of collaboration between African universities.

ARUA biennial conference

Attending the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Fourth Biennial International Conference in Lagos, Nigeria, from 15-17 November 2023 has highlighted this and while the network is doing tremendously well, it is still comparatively small and one of the few on the continent.

Being small is not necessarily a bad thing, but what is needed is more extensive collaboration between African universities, African university consortia and university networks that connects localities, regions and nations on the continent.

While understanding and often explicitly acknowledging the need to break with ivory towers and align to a mission of societal transformation, we still tend to lean towards partnerships with well-established universities and higher education institutions, that are better resourced and come with prestige, and more often than not, are based in the Global North.

Of course, we need to ensure we have a truly global footprint in terms of our partnerships, but such a footprint should not come at the detriment of the impact that closer partnerships with universities on the continent stand to deliver.

Higher education globally is faced by a multitude of challenges, and while hard-pressed to contribute to sustainable solutions for the grand challenges of our time, at our public universities, resources are dwindling, financial sustainability is crippled by government funding cuts, while there are also problems with tuition fee collection and rising student debt.

There is definite value and strength in looking towards partnerships and university consortia on the African continent, particularly in a resource-starved environment.

Game-changing partnerships

Worth noting is that the best research and the best students do not always come from Ivy League universities. Instead, the unique insight and access that universities on the continent have to their own challenges, resources, people, and political, social and cultural realities, collectively constitute the African higher education system’s strength.

Harnessed and curated properly through strategic partnerships in and between universities on the continent, it stands to be the game changer, not only for our own universities but also for partners globally.

Equal partnering is not about equal or comparable contributions, but about the leveraging of individual contributions and strengths.

There is currently a sense that all partners have to interact equally within networks and benefit equally, but this is not always the case and probably never quite attainable, and maybe not even desirable – at least not in the sense that all partners partake in the same activities, with the same outcomes, and vie for the same resources.

After all, many of these networks have been based on the idea of comparability, often in terms of factors such as participating institutions’ research intensity, and their standings in university rankings.

International partners

Understanding our role in the larger continental and international knowledge economy is key to also understanding our own contributions within a partnership, university consortium or network. This is particularly pertinent to the contributions made to international partners and partner networks.

The local and the global intersect when it comes to the role that universities play. Universities today have a huge role to play in our shared future as forces for social good locally nationally and internationally.

Education is rightfully touted as a key and a gateway to a better life, but education in and of itself is not the sole game changer, instead it is the environment in which education and knowledge creation is fostered and applied that stands to impact lives. And no more so than on our continent.

Inclusive engagement

Collaboration is key, and we need clear strategies for how we engage local as well as global stakeholders, how we identify and strengthen research collaboration and where we can leverage off each other’s strengths.

And research and the exchange of ideas are not the only areas for collaboration. Of equal importance is the exchange of students and staff including non-academic staff to build capacity across the higher education landscape.

The strength in such collaborations lies in engaging, not only higher education partners on the continent, but also the African Union (AU) as well as government agencies, international non-governmental organisations, or INGOs, NGOs, and industry partners.

In addition, collaborations must ensure close alignment with the SDGs, the AU’s Agenda 2063, and national development plans.

Importantly, we must ensure we engage across different regions on the continent to be inclusive of different cultures, languages and political systems.

The learnings and contributions of such collaborations in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion and how this can feed into other international partners and networks are massive.

Not to mention how this will build our own researchers and students and feed a broader democratic development agenda. This is our strength and the way in which we stand to become real change agents, not only on our own continent, but globally.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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