[CAPE TOWN] African academics are backing a drive to establish closer research and higher-education ties between countries on the continent to boost its development.
The vision is set out in a document finalised last month (January) by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) — with the support of the African Union and the Association of African Universities — and recently seen by SciDev.Net.
It is similar to European initiatives such as the degree-harmonising Bologna Process and the European Research Area (ERA), which aim to increase Europe's competitiveness through closer research collaboration between member nations.
The document says that Africa's higher-education sector is hampered by closed systems that limit the mobility of students and lecturers, restricted enrolment and low completion rates, a lack of harmony in course programmes followed by non-recognition of some qualifications, general under-funding, and a lack of world-renowned researchers.
The new initiative aims to make Africa's scarce resources go further by encouraging distance learning, agreeing on universal teaching standards, and sharing research equipment between networks of excellence.
It would build on existing efforts to encourage researcher and student mobility within the African continent. The African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education (CAMES), for example, encourages French-speaking African universities to recognise each others' degrees and is trying to extend its work to anglophone countries.
But despite the similarity to Europe's initiatives, there are significant differences brought about by the unique challenges facing Africa, said Goolam Mohamedbhai, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, who developed the document with Alice Lamptey, coordinator of the ADEA Working Group on Higher Education.
For instance, the African version emphasises creating more diversity in higher-education courses.
The continent has followed many industrialised countries in closing its technical colleges, but this is counterproductive for nations where manufacturing and technical skills are still needed, said Mohamedbhai.
The African initiative also differs in its research focus, he added. Europe's ambition with the ERA was to increase its global competitiveness, whereas the focus of AHERS must be poverty alleviation, he said. "If you compete with the rest of the world, the risk is that you neglect the needs of the continent."
The next step is to draw up a plan to achieve the vision and to promote it to African policymakers.
This might prove the hard part, said Mammo Muchie, who holds a research chair in innovation studies at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa. "The problems and the issues are well articulated [in the note]. How to deal with them given where higher education is [at] in Africa is less clear," he said.
A study on how to achieve the vision has been commissioned, and the interim results will be discussed at the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities in Stellenbosch, South Africa, from 30 May to 3 June. A final report is expected at the ADEA meeting in December.