Africa Analysis: Political maturity before excellence

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Africa must put differences aside before its plans for research and education excellence can come to fruition, argues Linda Nordling.

Africa is overflowing with plans to boost research and teaching excellence. There are plans to create centres of excellence, networks of excellence; even networks of centres of excellence.

And now a plan proposes to turn such initiatives into a homogenous higher education and research 'space'.

But even if the model of excellence the continent follows is right, past experience suggests that political jealousy between countries vying for key science facilities hinders the collaboration needed to achieve excellence in Africa.

Inspiration from Europe

The plan for an African Higher Education and Research Space (AHERS) was put forward by African academics in a concept note finalised in January this year by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA).

It stipulates that greater collaboration in education and research, and pooling of scarce resources is essential to combat problems such as high dropout rates in African universities, and low quality research and education.

The concept is inspired by two European initiatives to boost competitiveness: the Bologna Process to harmonise university degrees and boost student mobility; and the European Research Area, in which students and researchers move freely and multinational research projects are funded without hassle.

The processes have been successful in Europe, where every year Brussels doles out billions of Euro to European research networks.

But can models concocted to promote excellence in one of the world's most developed regions work in Africa?

Excellence from the bottom up

The AHERS will not be a carbon copy of European efforts, says Goolam Mohamedbhai, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius and one of the consultants who developed the concept note for ADEA.

For instance, the African research space will focus on poverty alleviation while the main aim of Europe's research area was to sharpen the continent's already strong research and innovation capability, boosting its international research clout.

But this means that African scientists will have to focus on research questions relevant to the continent, possibly sacrificing international renown for local priorities.

This is already happening in Tanzania and other countries that have boosted national research funding in strategic disciplines.

Mohamedbhai agrees that excellence needs to be built from the bottom up, by rewarding academics who are moving in the right direction. "The notion of suddenly deciding that you need a centre of excellence and plonking it down is not possible in the African context."

And given Africa's scarce resources, resource-sharing — as promoted in the concept note — is essential for excellence to take root.

When politics gets in the way

But the collaborative vision put forward with AHERS faces a major challenge. While African policymakers say they want to pool resources and work together, political jealousy often gets in the way when projects reach the implementation stage, with disagreements breaking out over the physical location of shared resources.

For instance, the plans for a Pan-African University with regional networks of PhD schools got stuck in political infighting last year when the southern and northern networks could not agree on where to place their headquarters.

Likewise, a stubborn stand-off between Kenya and Rwanda over which gets to host the East African Community's planned science and technology commission — not a centre of excellence itself, but an influential body for science in the region — has severely delayed its establishment.

History also teaches us that ambitious partnerships can crumble even after they have been implemented. The East Africa University, which united the universities of Nairobi in Kenya, Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and Makerere in Uganda in the 1960s, fell apart in 1970 after political issues got in the way.

Coping with unrest

Does this make AHERS a pipe dream? I hope not. But a lot more maturity needs to enter the science policy debate for it to work.

The European Union was a mature institution when it embarked on creating its research and higher education 'space'. Africa's unity is younger, and therefore less stable.

We are reminded of this by the sudden eruption of unrest in North Africa and the election-spurred unrest in Ivory Coast (and, to a lesser extent, South Sudan and Uganda).

At this point, the AHERS is simply a vision. Exactly how it can be achieved remains to be pinned down. ADEA is drawing up a proposal on how to speed up progress, to be presented at the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities (COREVIP) meeting later this year in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

And the plan needs to be promoted to policymakers on the continent. The African Union is already a supporter — but national and regional support is more vital for success on the ground, and for overcoming political stumbling blocks.

Ultimately, there is no way around it: African research excellence will stand and fall with the continent's ability to put differences aside and work together to nurture quality in the true sense of the word.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.