Africa needs better universities, but is a pan-African university the way to go, asks Linda Nordling.
Africa used to have some great universities. In the 1950s and 60s, cities like Kampala in Uganda and Ibadan in Nigeria were renowned for their seats of learning.
Alas, it did not last. Decades of neglect have left even Africa's best institutions under-resourced and over-stretched.
But attitudes are changing. Both governments and international donors, like the World Bank, now subscribe to the notion that a healthy university sector is essential for development and democratisation in Africa.
So it should come as no shock that the African Union (AU) has a plan to restore the continent's universities to their former glory.
But the project's ambition may be surprising to some: a pan-African university (PAU) to set the pace for research excellence on the continent.
The AU made the proposal in November last year, at the bureau meeting of the Conference of African Ministers of Education (COMEDAF) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A draft concept note presents the PAU as a "continental flagship institution of higher education" offering advanced graduate training and postgraduate research opportunities for "the cream of the crop" of African students.
The new university would also act as a "reference institution" providing a repository of knowledge and skills to support pan-African development initiatives.
The PAU is intended to sever Africa's reliance on international agencies' strategies, which the concept note said "do not necessarily share Africa's vision, nor seek to support a genuine African renaissance".
But it is difficult to see what the PAU will look like from a more practical point of view. And this month, the AU has stonewalled requests for updates on the proposal.
According to the concept note, funding for the PAU will come from a range of sources, including the host country or region, the African diaspora, international donors, the private sector and tuition fees. An AU education fund is also mentioned — although a budget is not and the COMEDAF bureau has raised concerns about the sustainability of financing without relying too much on donor support.
Location-wise, the PAU would comprise "a main campus linked to a network of satellite campuses scattered across a particular region of Africa". But the note does not say whether the new institution would be housed on existing university campuses or in purpose-built new ones.
Yet this is likely to be a key issue when the proposal is discussed at the ministerial meeting of COMEDAF later this year.
It has reportedly already been raised. According to a South African delegate at the Addis Ababa meeting, questions were asked about the need for a new institute, when using existing ones might be cheaper and easier.
This 'old versus new' debate has often been raised before. For example, it was a hot topic a few years ago when Africa's communal science strategy, the Consolidated Plan for Africa (CPA), proposed targeting support to a select few 'centres of excellence' in specific disciplines (see 'A network of excellence for African development'). Many academics felt this would starve the poorest institutions (see 'African science: in with the old, out with the new').
"Creating institutions is not easy; it takes a long time, it's hard to find funding, and staffing is a major issue," says Goolam Mohamedbhai, director general of the Association of African Universities (AAU). "If the PAU will hire within Africa, it might weaken existing institutions." The COMEDAF bureau has recommended that a feasibility study should be undertaken and more consultation done with agencies such as the AAU.
Mohamedbhai says he is troubled by the apparent secrecy surrounding the PAU. His institution hasn't been able to discuss the proposal and form an official view because of a lack of information. This is embarrassing, he explains, "because the AAU is meant to be the implementing agency for the AU's education strategy."
It may be that the AU is reticent because the proposal is being re-worked completely, perhaps to tone down impressions that a new institution is planned.
However, it is not clear what, if any, relationship the PAU would have to existing pan-African university initiatives, such as the African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST). The AIST is a project, born out of the African diaspora, to create an elite institute with campuses all over Africa. The first of these, in Abuja, Nigeria, opened its doors to students last year.
But Wole Soboyejo, chair of the African Scientific Committee for AIST and a professor at Princeton University in the United States, does not see the PAU as a threat. He adds that the 'new versus old' debate is losing some of its poignancy. To him, both will be needed to meet future demand for higher education.
"If you look at the numbers of scientists we need to educate, it's clear that you can't do it with one institution. You need to have a range of very strong institutions and networks," he says.
Still, there is a danger with grand approaches to institution-building that place too much emphasis on the bricks and mortar, and too little on what goes on inside, he continues.
When Soboyejo was a student at Cambridge University, people would point out where the neutron was discovered, or the atom was first split.
"None of these were fancy buildings," he says. "We think that science is about having expensive things, but that is missing the point. It's really about people with good ideas, working together."
That should be a lesson to Africa.
Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.