The Pan African University was officially launched last Wednesday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, headquarters of the African Union, which has been driving the initiative. The event transformed into reality the dream of creating centres of excellence across Africa to conduct research and train the high-level professionals desperately needed for development.
The ceremony was chaired by Jean Ping, president of the African Union Commission.
The ambitious reach of the Pan-African University (PAU), which will focus on research and postgraduate training, will be achieved through five regional centres, each specialising in a key field and comprising an academic and administrative core at a host university and networks of academics and students from elsewhere in Africa working in the same areas.
The Pan-African University as been six years in the making. Selecting the host counties and universities has been a long and difficult process, with countries and universities vying for the prestige of being the regional host.
In Central Africa the University of Yaounde 2 in Cameroon was chosen to host an institute of humanities, social sciences and good governance. Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has basic sciences, technology and innovation for East Africa, and in West Africa the University of Ibadan in Nigeria is hosting life and Earth sciences.
North and Southern Africa have been particularly problematic.
North Africa finally settled on a water, energy and climate change institute in Annaba in Algeria after the withdrawal of Libya, which commission sources said did not meet all the requirements. A validation meeting is scheduled for next month in Algiers, two months before the institute's official launch in March.
South Africa heads up space sciences on behalf of Southern Africa. Competition between countries and arguments over diplomatic procedures and a host university delayed the choice for more than a year.
But some members of the high-level panel that has steered the development of the continental university said arguments in favour of South Africa were that it already had the laboratories, equipment and researchers as well as extensive expertise in space sciences, and it seemed pointless to place the node in a country where it would be necessary to start from scratch.
In regions where host universities were decided earlier this year - Yaoundé 2, Jomo Kenyatta and Ibadan - considerable progress has been made in preparing the PAU nodes. Programmes have been decided and local officials appointed to report on progress to Jean Pierre Ezin, the African Union commissioner in charge of human resources, science and technology.
He said that what was now needed was to recruit the first cohort of students, with each site aiming for around 100 students to start with. By 2015 it is hoped that there will be some 1,500 students across all disciplines.
Teachers already in place at the university nodes will be reinforced by new recruits from around the continent selected on criteria of excellence.
Officials from the host institutions said preparations were well under way.
Elomo Ntonga of Yaoundé 2 University said it was building on long experience in the social sciences and good governance and already had everything needed to run the new institute. The university is now focusing on strengthening existing capacity with additional human resources and equipment, she said. Yaounde 2 will also work closely with the University of Yaounde 1, to ensure it delivers on its Pan-African University mission.
Professor John Pius of Jomo Kenyatta University reassured the gathering that the institution already had the qualified lecturers, infrastructure and expertise for its basic sciences institute. He expressed concern, however, over language issues for non-English speaking students and academics from other African countries.
The university's main sponsors
Core funding for the Pan-African University will be provided by the African Union Commission, and it is expected to earn income from research and tuition fees, as well as voluntary contributions from member states and the private sector.
It is also expected that substantial donor funding will be secured to support the university's themes and the training of high-level researchers and professionals.
Several donors have expressed a willingness to provide support. Germany is interested in the North African institute for water, energy and climate change, and Japan has announced support for Kenya's work in basic sciences, technology and innovation.
India will help to fund Nigeria's institute of life and Earth sciences, and Sweden has said it will assist Cameroon's institute of humanities, social sciences and good governance. It also appears that other donors including the European Union and Belgium are ready to assist.
The commission said that these five partners are poised to help finance up to two-thirds of the budget necessary for the first stages operation of the PAU's regional nodes.
Five criteria will guide the mobilisation and use of resources, and they are guarantees of: adequate, sustainable and timely funding; adequate remuneration of staff; sustainable quality of infrastructure and equipment; support for academic mobility; and compliance with high standards of financial management.
Managing the university
The Pan-African University will be managed by three main bodies; its council, rector and board of directors.
The council will govern the institution and its activities and will comprise key stakeholders including academics, community leaders, regional economic communities, and commerce and industry.
The Association of African Universities and the African Academy of Sciences will also play major roles in the council, which will be responsible for complying with the vision of the African Union, setting policy and ensuring excellence and programme relevance.
The rector will be the university's executive leader responsible for planning, monitoring and coordinating its institutes, and a university president will supervise communication and internal and external cooperation. The university will be required to report regularly to the African Union's conference of ministers of education.
The board of directors will have primary responsibility for academic matters and will include among others the heads of the regional institutes and subject centres as well as students. The board will be chaired by the university's president.
The university will be staffed by lecturers and administrators from the host universities, and by academics invited from African countries, the African diaspora and university partners.
Qualifications and language issues
The issue of granting qualifications concerned some of the experts at last week's launch of the Pan-African University, which has 24 founding documents that form its backbone.
Professor Amadou Lamine Ndiaye, president of the high-level panel, said that qualifications awarded by the university would be co-signed by the host institutions in the various regions and would be recognised across Africa.
Another concern is language, as a primary aim of the PAU is to encourage postgraduate student and academic mobility across the continent. Ndiaye said students and staff would need to spend at least six months learning the language of their host institution - but some participants thought this might be insufficient time in which to learn a new language to the level required for effective learning and research.
Getting the Pan-African University to operate effectively across all regions, and to fulfil its ambitious mandate, will be a daunting task. It will also be a test of the African Union's growing role in continental higher education, which also includes a major scholarship programme aimed at encouraging student and academic mobility within Africa - rather than between Africa and the West - and initiatives to harmonise higher education.
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