Plans for a university that will stretch across Africa and be a "flagship institution of higher education" will go ahead, despite political problems with two of its five planned centres, African Union commissioner and steward of the project, Jean-Pierre Ezin has insisted.
The Pan-African University (PAU), which was proposed by the African Union (AU) in 2008, is expected to offer advanced graduate training and postgraduate research opportunities for "the cream of the crop" of African students, according to a draft concept note produced at the time.
But making the dream a reality has been problematic. One of the main difficulties has been reaching agreement over which countries, and which institutes within those countries, will host its five nodes, as the regional hubs are to be called.
The University of Lagos in Nigeria has been chosen as the West Africa node, specialising in earth and life sciences. Kenya will host the East Africa node, covering basic sciences, technology and innovation, at a university yet to be announced.
A Central Africa hub in Cameroon will specialise in social and human sciences and governance, and may be based at the University of Yaounde II, where a Pan-African Institute of University Governance already exists.
But the site of the Southern Africa node remains disputed, and a political tussle has broken out over the North Africa node, which was originally awarded to Algeria, but now Libya — the African Union's largest donor — is staking a claim.
"We are trying to push ahead with the nodes in Cameroon, Nigeria and Kenya, but we are facing some problems with the nodes for North and Southern Africa," says Ezin, the AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology.
"But we will make a start with the Pan-African University in September 2011 with the existing nodes. This is the timetable set up by the African Union Commission and we are working on it now."
The five nodes were originally supposed to be operating from September this year, but the disputes have caused the deadline to slip.
A particular difficulty is the Southern Africa node, which was originally slated for South Africa.
The AU unofficially designated Stellenbosch University as the hub, focusing on space science. But some members of the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) have since contested this.
Sources said that some SADC countries are lukewarm about space science, which they see as less relevant to their region's needs than other sciences. In particular, they are interested in hosting the still-disputed water and energy node, and Botswana and Zimbabwe have offered to host a Southern Africa node specialising in water, diplomats say.
"Ministers of education in the SADC have already expressed concern on how the themes are allocated," says Christoff Pauw, coordinator of South–South networks at Stellenbosch University.
Some African delegations also fear that scarce resources required to strengthen their existing universities and science initiatives might be diverted to the new university.
Stellenbosch University: its unofficial designation as a node of the pan-African university has been contested
One African diplomat suggested that South Africa was deliberately "dragging its feet because its priority is the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) when it comes to spending money on space research".
"The SADC region would like to designate a country for the Southern Africa node, but they have not yet managed to meet and make a decision on how to move ahead," says a clearly frustrated Ezin. "We are just waiting for them to convene."
The AU Commission had hoped to make final decisions on the five nodes in time for the January 2011 African Union Summit in Ethiopia. "The Pan-African University will certainly be on the AU Summit agenda in January. But it is unlikely that there will be a final submission on which country or institutions are on the table," says Pauw.
But Southern Africa is not the only problem area. The North Africa hub has also started to create problems.
"We were supposed to start with the institute in Algeria this year. Then Libya entered the game and things are not going well," Ezin admits.
"We consulted experts in higher education about what is the most suitable country to host the North Africa institute on water and energy that has the maximum chance to succeed, and Algeria was suggested. That was why we selected it — because we wanted it to succeed," he says.
"In Libya, as far as we know through our consultants, there is no higher-education institution to host postgraduate studies on water and climate change. We do need a basis from which to move higher and also to raise the standards and level of existing institutions if we want to build a Pan-African University system."
"We will continue to discuss this at the political level," Ezin said, referring to the margins of the European Union–Africa summit in Libya, which began today (29−30 November) as the next possible opportunity.
Goolam Mohamedbhai, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius who recently stepped down as chair of the Association of African Universities, says universities have been left out of crucial discussions about the nodes.
Rather than the AU Commission deciding unilaterally on where a node is to be situated, as appears to have happened, "it would have been better to send out a call asking for institutions to bid for the centres and then a high-level panel of academics would have looked at the requests. If you are creating institutions you have to look at the best," Mohammedbhai says.
"Instead the procedures have been political. And the sticking points are a political matter."
Another problem to be tackled is finance. According to the AU formula, the nodes will be one-third funded by the host country, one-third by the AU — mainly in the form of fellowships — and one-third by the so-called lead partner.
The lead partner for funding the Kenya node has already emerged as Japan, and Germany has indicated a willingness to support the North Africa node. Cameroon may be funded by Sweden, Ezin says, and, in a major development for South–South cooperation, India has emerged as a likely lead partner for the Nigeria-based node.
Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé, is to host one of the nodes, which may be funded by Sweden
"Discussions have begun on the funding needs of the institutions for the first five years," says Ezin.
But no lead partner has emerged with funding commitments for the Southern Africa node.
According to Ezin, the Southern Africa node is likely to attract funding from the EU, perhaps via one of the EU-associated programmes such as the European Space Agency. "The EU has some money to fund space technology and space applications," he says.
A joint statement issued by Ezin and European Commissioner Antonio Tajani, following a high-level meeting in Brussels in September, said that the European Commission would "explore possible funding options to assist in the setting up of the Space Sciences Institute of the PAU". It added that the European Space Agency had indicated a willingness to consider contributing assets and expertise to the node.
But others at African delegations in Brussels say that, despite this indication of willingness, there are no EU proposals to support the Pan-African University in the pipeline and the statement on funding remains vague. "There is certainly the question of financial sustainability," says a South African official who does not want to be named.
The only EU financial commitments to the Pan-African University relate to intra-African academic networking and the mobility of students and scholars, including the Mwalimu Nyerere African Scholarship Scheme, which aims to promote student exchange within Africa and stem the brain drain. This will receive 35 million euros (US$46 million) from the European Development Fund for five years from 2011. This money will support some 250 African postgraduates to study and work in other African countries, it was announced at a meeting in Cape Town this week (24 November).
"This is not specifically linked to the Pan-African University, but will be packaged to include it," says an African diplomat in Brussels. The EU "will simply hang an existing but expanded programme on a new hook", he said.
Ezin admits that the AU has not been concentrating on procedures to finance these institutions while the political issues remain.
And he foresees another political battle ahead that could dwarf the wrangling over the North and Southern Africa nodes.
"The PAU is one university with five regional pillars, and we will also have a rectorate to manage and coordinate all these institutions, in the same way that the UN University is coordinated from Tokyo," Ezin says.
It will be "very difficult" to choose a location, he said. "Every country would like to get the rectorate and we are reflecting on what will be the best way to tackle this question."
A decision on the rectorate will be made in 2012 when most of the nodes are already functioning, Ezin says.
Despite these problems, many of those involved say the political support behind the PAU has grown in recent months, and that the project has now reached "the point of no return".
Mohamedbhai says: "The idea is very good, and the topics are very relevant and very important for Africa."
And Ezin is positive that the scheme will move forward: "This is not about one country or even one region. It is about benefiting the whole continent."