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Stunning fundraising success at Stellenbosch University is a model for others in Africa, but leadership is crucial, says Linda Nordling.

Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa has achieved a feat that could change how African universities view their financial plight.

Last month, the university announced it has attracted record investment from external sources amid the global economic downturn — showing what is possible with the right plan and good leadership.

Other African universities should look closely at the SU experience. A rise in science philanthropy, coupled with healthy economic growth in many African countries, means there is money for enterprising institutions to tap into.  

But to follow in SU's footsteps, African universities must change. They must hire leaders with proven academic and fundraising talent. And they must draw up plans to guide investments in their institutions.

Record African fundraiser

On 11 April, Russel Botman, SU's rector, announced that his university had raised no less than 2 billion rand (US$260 million) in a five-year fundraising drive as part of the university's HOPE project, which addresses African priorities. [1]

The support from individual donors is particularly impressive — 14 people gave more than 1 million rand each, a record for the university. In the past two years alone, there were 2,464 individual donors — another university record. According to Botman, it is the biggest African funding campaign in higher education to date.

The money will go towards the university's programme of continuing to distance itself from a former Afrikaans enclave, remembered for its ties with South Africa's apartheid regime, by welcoming diversity and addressing African challenges in teaching and research.

Progress has already been made. Last year the first medical doctors graduated from the university's new rural clinical school, where doctors are trained for work in outlying areas. On the research side, scientists recently developed a 'tea bag' filter to purify polluted drinking water.

SU took a leaf out of the book of universities in the United States, many of which raise huge funds from alumni and philanthropists. And with its HOPE plan in place to illustrate how the money would be spent, it wooed businesses, wealthy individuals, international philanthropic organisations and also the South African government.

The university also took stock of its academic workforce and identified areas of excellence that would excite potential donors.

No shortage of donors

Could other African universities do as well as SU? Perhaps, but most would need to change their institutional culture.  

They need to change their recruitment and promotion practices to reward scientists and managers who have proven skills in external fundraising. But they also need a plan to convince investors to part with their money.

There is no shortage of potential donors. With economic growth in many African countries, more wealthy people are setting up foundations and philanthropy is taking off, according to a report on global trends in philanthropy published by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. [2]

African philanthropy is not yet making a big impact on university budgets. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is a lack of enterprising vice-chancellors and deans who know how to position their institutions to dip into this growing pot of money.  

Unfortunately, few universities outside South Africa have the right leaders in post.

A combination of underinvestment in tertiary education and political university appointments has meant there are fewer professors and other top postholders who are adept at raising money, or qualified to build the research capacity that institutions need to attract funding.  

Add a regulatory system in many countries that does not allow universities much freedom to raise or spend their own money, and there is much that stands between the continent's institutions and fundraising success.

Promoting the right leaders

There are people in Africa who are working hard to change the culture of appointments in universities.

Umar Bindir, who heads Nigeria's National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, has campaigned to hire professors and vice-chancellors on their expertise of raising external funding.

Hassan Mshinda, director of Tanzania's Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), is pushing for promotions based on academic merit in his country's universities.  

They say it is an uphill struggle to change ingrained systems of influence, and that there is some way to go in both countries.

It is not surprising that this is a slow process. It takes time to change the rules governing universities and to encourage their financial independence.

But until university leaders are appointed who understand what universities need to expand and develop centres of excellence, they will lack the kind of plan that helped SU exceed its fundraising targets.

The first institutions to emulate the SU approach will have a big advantage over others — not just in raising donations from rich Africans, but in accessing research funds and attracting quality lecturers and researchers.

There is money waiting to help Africa's cash-strapped universities, but before they can access it, most of them urgently need better leaders.

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, Nature and others.


[1] Makoni, M. Stellenbosch bags billions from donors (Research Africa, 16 April 2011)
[2] Plewes, B.
Global philanthropy and international cooperation: a guide to trends and issues 263kB(Canadian Council for International Co-operation, 2008)