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Leading figures from universities across Africa are to hold a five-day meeting in Britain next month to discuss detailed plans of how rich nations can help support the growth and development of higher education institutions across the continent.

Their discussions, to be held in Dundee, Scotland, are expected to lead to a 'blueprint' for such a strategy that will be presented to the leaders of the G8 group of the most industrialised nations. The G8 will be holding its annual meeting in nearby Gleneagles in July.

In particular, the blueprint will outline ways of implementing the recommendations for an increased US$8 billion investment in higher education — $5 billion for universities, and $3 billion for centres of research excellence — called for by the Commission for Africa in March (See Commission 'to seek US$5 billion for African universities').

But the meeting, to which South African president Thabo Mbeki and other leading African politicians have been invited, is also being used to emphasise that many African governments are also keen to see the growth of both their universities and their science and technology capacity.

"We want to remove the myth that African leaders are not interested in supporting higher education," Akilagpa Sawyerr, secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU) — one of the principal organisers of the conference — told SciDev.Net.

The conference will take place at the University of Abertay Dundee. The university has considerable experience of working with African universities. For example, over the last five years vice-chancellors and senior staff from around 60 African universities have passed through its senior management development programme.

Many of these individuals will be among the 40 delegates who are expected to attend the meeting — to be held under the title of 'The Abertay Conversations' — in addition to a selection of African political leaders and British academics with an interest of the development of African universities.

Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, is also said to have been invited to participate in the meeting.

In addition to the collaboration of the AAU, the conference is being organised jointly with the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), the Association of African Universities (AAU), and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL).

These three organisations have been actively engaged in drawing up a strategy for renewing African universities, and the conference was proposed by Abertay University as a way of linking their initiative to the G8 Summit.

"We hope that the Abertay Conversations will produce a set of action points that could put in place an agenda for change in African economic development, " Nicholas Terry, deputy principal of Abertay, said in a statement.


The action plan that is expected to emerge from this meeting, he added, would combine the recommendations of the Africa Commission — which was set up by UK prime minister Tony Blair — and the aims and objectives of the AAU's 'renewal' programme.

"Such a plan, developed by Africans for Africans with support from other organisations such as the ACU, COL and ourselves, would be a powerful source of leverage in seeking the G8 summit's backing for changing the face of African higher education," said Terry.

"Given the crucial central importance of universities to the economic development of modern nations in the new global knowledge economy, this initiative has tremendous potential significance for Africa's future."

The Commission for Africa's proposals for developing the capabilities of universities and research centres across the continent have been widely welcomed in Africa, where such a move is seen as essential to the economic growth and social development of all countries (see Commission for Africa: some reactions).

"If you are going to have an economic, social and political revival throughout Africa, then it has to be based on the education system," John Battersby, of the International Marketing Council of South Africa — one of the bodies that is helping to put on the Dundee meeting — said in an interview with the Glasgow Herald.

There is less consensus, however, among the aid agencies of the G8 nations about the extent to which support for universities should be top priority, given both competing demands for funding, and uncertainty over the extent to which investing in higher education leads directly to the relief of poverty.

The challenge facing the Dundee meeting is not only to demonstrate what can be achieved and how to make this happen — but also to convince heads of governments that this is an area in which their aid agencies should increase their efforts.

The outcome of this is likely to depend partly on the extent to which African politicians express the support.

"If we got the money [recommended by the African Commission], I would be very happy," says Sawyerr. "But just as important is to ensure that key African players attend the meeting, and that we get Africa's political leaders to consider higher education to be important."