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African research universities to create hub of expertise

Across the developing world – especially in Asia, but also in Latin America, the Middle East and other regions – there is a strong correlation between economic growth and a commitment to build strong research capacity to grow new sectors and expand existing industries. Often this commitment comes through government policy and funding.

The universities that form the membership of the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, are working to create such a platform for similar growth in research capacity across the continent over time, by aligning Africa’s leading research universities into a hub of research expertise.

Researchers within the 16 ARUA member institutions* will work in partnership on specific multinational projects. This plan will allow the research teams to share the resources that are available in their respective universities.

We believe such an alliance will benefit not only the member institutions but also, over time, the continent in general, by laying a foundation for research projects to be initiated and developed in Africa, to address African needs and growth through innovation.

ARUA was established in March 2015. We are seeking to act in five main areas.

  • 1- We are identifying research projects that can best be addressed through continent-wide collaboration. So far we have raised funds amounting to about US$400,000, which will be used in part to develop two major multinational research projects: one in the social sciences, the other in the natural sciences.

    At ARUA’s next meeting on 9 October 2016 we will be considering proposals for these projects. African countries share a range of issues that might be appropriate for an ARUA research project. For example, human migration within the continent, whether voluntary or forced by events such as war, drought or political unrest, is a huge social issue, involving multiple countries and multiple sites.

  • 2- We will offer ARUA’s combined research capacity in the form of a consortium that responds to calls for research.

    If a country or agency needs research on, say, an aspect of climate change, ARUA could bring together experts from different countries who could undertake that project. Such a research team is likely to be stronger in knowledge, experience, capacity and equipment than what any single university could put together.

    Research projects are relying more and more on collaborations anyway, but many African academics did their doctoral and post-doctoral work in the global North, so their ‘default’ collaborations are often with researchers in those institutions.

    ARUA is set up to make an explicit effort to promote such collaboration within the continent, to build the kind of ongoing links and personal networks in a volume that Africa does not yet have.

  • 3- We will work towards strengthening PhD programmes, which are in themselves generating Africa-based knowledge. One possible way to do this would be to promote doctoral studies with transnational university collaboration.

    For instance, ARUA will promote a joint transnational doctoral seminar programme around a common subject theme area, led by supervisors from different ARUA universities for one week.

    By bringing together supervisors and students from different universities to discuss a common area of interest, we can increase the quality of the doctoral study experience and provide greater depth of supervision for the participants.

  • 4- ARUA aims to strengthen research through professionalising research management. A university’s ability to facilitate and grow research, and particularly to attract research grants, has a strong correlation with the strength of its research office.

    Research management offices are key in identifying and accessing research funding globally, in supporting grant writing, in creating confidence about the institution’s ability to monitor ethical issues, to report reliably, to manage grants and to make research outputs more visible. We want to strengthen the research management teams in ARUA universities.

  • 5- Finally, one of ARUA goals is to lobby research agencies, funders, governments and global NGOs about the importance for Africa to host at least 20 or so strong research-intensive universities and the need for policy and funding strategies – national and continental – to ensure that such a cluster of universities emerges.

    It sends a message about the continent’s role in innovation, creates confidence among investors, business and global agencies about the quality of the talent coming out of African universities, and reassures other researchers that they can find an institution where they can do their best work in their home countries, and do not have to seek academic posts in the global North.

The funding ARUA has raised in our first year has been generated mostly from two foundations – Carnegie and Kresge. In addition, each member institution is paying a subscription fee.

We recently appointed ARUA’s first general secretary, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, who until very recently was vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, an ARUA institution.

ARUA continues to look out for funding providers, such as multinational industries that have a footprint in many African countries.

We see ARUA as a platform for growing the profile and quality of higher education across the continent, so it would make sense for governments to support this alliance as well.

* The ARUA universities are: Ghana – University of Ghana; Ethiopia – Addis Ababa University; Kenya – University of Nairobi; Nigeria – University of Lagos, University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University; South Africa – University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Pretoria, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and University of the Witwatersrand; Rwanda – University of Rwanda; Senegal – Université Cheikh Anta Diop; Uganda – Makerere University; and Tanzania – University of Dar es Salaam.

Dr Max Price is vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the founding chair of the African Research Universities Alliance or ARUA.
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