Global university leaders have called on Africa to come up with proposals for collaboration that could bring the intellectual and resource muscle of the world's top institutions to bear on the challenge of training a new generation of academics. Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University and head of a Global University Leaders' Forum (GULF) team attending a forum of African higher education heads in Ghana, said ways of supporting African universities would be discussed by GULF at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos next month.
"So many of the issues that African universities face, we also face, though not as acutely," said Simmons, the first black president of an American Ivy League university, at the African University Leader's Forum held in Accra from 22 to 25 November. The theme was "Developing and Retaining the Next Generation of Academics".
There were many ways in which the world's top universities could collaborate with African institutions to tackle the issue of academic shortages, Simmons said. She suggested that African universities "be direct and specific" about how they wanted to collaborate.
Higher education was a global movement and it was in the whole sector's interest for higher education worldwide to be vibrant and high quality. "Don't fall for the old thing of collaboration having to be two-way. We don't have to get anything out of it," she told the Accra Forum.
GULF was formed at the World Economic Forum in Davos with the purpose of adding to that Forum's intellectual capacity and providing it with insights. Also, said Simmons, GULF enables university presidents from across the world to meet and discuss joint projects and interests.
Last year GULF presidents agreed that their institutions would work with African universities and the Accra Forum - organised by the US donor collaboration, the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, and the Association of African Universities - provided an opportunity.
Simmons led a team that also included: Professor Linda Koch Lorimer, vice-president of Yale University; Professor Chorh Chuan Tan, acting president of the National University of Singapore; Professor Anne Lonsdale, deputy vice-chancellor of Cambridge; and Professor Sarah Worthington, pro-director for research and external relations at the London School of Economics.
"We are here to learn, and to take back ideas on how we can work with African universities," Simmons told University World News. The Accra forum, she added, "has been startling in some ways and very helpful in others".
The international presidents found the heads of African universities "incredibly impressive. This generation of leaders has been well educated and is extremely strong - they have had to be to lead through tough times. Societies need strong educators who can face up to governments and public opinion, and do what is right for students," Simmons said.
Having heard about the problems involved in developing and retaining a new generation of scholars, and possible solutions, she said GULF member universities could offer support in ways such as creating research opportunities, providing additional training, and assisting African universities to produce more PhDs and to develop them into academics.
"How can we help to accelerate that process?" Simmons asked.
"It means more resources and facilities, creating time and space for faculty to retool and expand their knowledge base, and opportunities for postgraduate students. The focus on science and technology is important, and perhaps we could also help create spaces and technologies to keep young people interested in science."
Simmons invited African university leaders to let GULF know how its member institutions could help: "We are not equipped to say what African universities need. We will follow their lead," she said.
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