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[CAPE TOWN] The first 'node' of a Pan-African University (PAU) — a continental network of institutions training postgraduate students and promoting research — could open its doors as early as February next year, an African Union (AU) official has confirmed.

The node at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa would be the first of five hosted by existing institutions across the continent, said Jean-Pierre Ezin, AU commissioner for science, last week (28 August). Ezin was speaking at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) near South Africa's Cape Town.

The PAU aims to improve research excellence and produce more and better graduates on the continent. It is supported by African education ministers but requires ratification by the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF), which will meet in October in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ezin is confident that the PAU plans will meet with ministerial approval. "The moment has come to develop human capability in Africa," he told students and staff at AIMS

He added that each African geographical region will acquire a main PAU node. The research focus for each node will involve a topic of strategic importance to the region. In collaboration with satellite units throughout the continent, the nodes will both conduct research and train PhD and Masters students.

The South African campus will focus on space science, to tie in with the region's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array of radio telescopes — an honour for which it is competing with Australia.

Ezin says the second campus is scheduled to open in September 2010 in North Africa. It will most likely be located in Algeria and will research water and energy issues.

The remaining three campuses will focus on life and earth sciences, basic science (such as physics and chemistry) and engineering, and governance and social sciences. The campuses will be divided between East, Central and West Africa and are not expected to open until 2011.

Funding for the project will come from three sources: The AU, the host institutions and international partners. The anticipated total cost of the project is US$66 million over five years, the majority of which will go towards student bursaries. The goal is for Stellenbosch University to take on 100 postgraduate students starting in 2010.

It is unclear how the PAU will fit in with other research networks or continental education programmes — such as the African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST). But Fritz Hahne, director of AIMS, insists people should not worry about overlaps between training initiatives. "This is the time for collaboration, not competition," he said.

But students at AIMS — youths from across Africa who are getting a mathematical leg-up to prepare them for postgraduate degrees at top international universities — were unsure how they felt about applying to the PAU.

"It's an interesting concept," said one female student. "But there's the issue of sustainability. Many new institutions are created in Africa but many fail because of a lack of sustainable funding."

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