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AFRICA
Optimising the contribution of HE in the SADC region

The Southern African Regional Universities Association, or SARUA, is pushing for closer alignment between Southern African Development Community, or SADC, and the regional universities body as a way of ensuring that universities – as knowledge producers and developers of human capacity – play a more active role in the implementation of regional development strategies and build institutional capacities.

Addressing a conference of the International Education Association of South Africa held in Durban, South Africa, in August on the topic of “Regional Integration and Collaboration: The role of higher education in the SADC region”, SARUA CEO Piyushi Kotecha indicated that the existing SADC policy context created a renewed impetus for greater alignment between the two regional bodies – a move which could produce benefits not only for individual institutions, but for development in the region.

“Three key policies – the SADC protocol on Higher Education [which effectively gave rise to the establishment of SARUA in 2007], the SADC Industrialisation Strategy and the revised Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan 2015-20, all of which are ultimately geared towards boosting development in the region – offered a range of opportunities for increased collaboration,” she said.

Among these opportunities are: increased dialogue between higher education and industry to support the development of relevant qualifications and research outputs; and new research to support the development and implementation of value chain strategies.

Kotecha also pointed to the potential for new university curricula and capacity development programmes for a new generation of graduates who could drive industrialisation and value chain development.

Qualifications framework

Among other important outcomes would be the ongoing development of a regional qualifications framework and regional quality assurance capacity development programme, leading to greater student and staff mobility and academic harmonisation.

Lastly, she said, the development of a comprehensive database of SADC universities, institutional niches and specialisations could link industry with regional centres of excellence, creating greater coherence between the education and training sectors and labour market needs.

In June 2017, a meeting of SADC ministers responsible for Education and Training and Science, Technology and Innovation agreed that South Africa, as incoming 2017-18 SADC chair, would convene a regional dialogue of higher education institutions and the SARUA Executive Board to “strengthen the development role of higher education and innovation to support regional programmes such as the SADC Industrialisation Strategy.”

The dialogue would also try to encourage universities to affiliate to SARUA as a strategic partner and network for higher education in order to develop as broad and inclusive a platform as possible, according to the report.

High-level endorsement

Kotecha said the need for greater collaboration between the region’s higher education institutions had been endorsed by both the South African Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande and Science and Technology Minister Dr Naledi Pandor at the 2016 Going Global conference.

“Nzimande said: ‘Being in Africa and also having some common challenges with our neighbours, collaborations have the potential of assisting in finding common solutions to our problems and to also assist our decision- and policy-makers.’ I think that accurately sums up the situation,” said Kotecha.

SARUA is a membership-based association for the public and private universities in the 15 countries of SADC and aims to facilitate institutional co-operation aimed at strengthening higher education institutions and systems in the SADC region.

In the 10 years of its existence, SARUA has progressed through two distinct funding phases, making significant achievements in identified programme areas such as Research, Governance and Leadership, Capacity Development and Curriculum Innovation, according to Kotecha.

This year, selected universities in Southern Africa started to roll out the region’s first open-access, interdisciplinary masters curriculum and courseware on climate change – the product of six years of preparatory work on the part of SARUA with support from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

Funding model

The association has since 2013 relied primarily on the ability of SADC universities to contribute by way of a SARUA membership subscription. However, a “more optimal” funding model arising out of an inter-governmental and higher education dialogue is long overdue, according to Kotecha.

In other parts of the continent, especially East Africa, a successful systemic recurrent funding model underpinned by government contributions towards increasing the capacity of that region’s universities to play a more significant developmental role on the continent and internationally has yielded discernible results, said Kotecha.

She said SARUA Chairperson Professor Jean Paul Segihobe Bigira has indicated that the model that was developed by SARUA will be advocated again at the SADC ministers meeting in 2018.

According to Bigira, there is “a need to better position and maximise the strategic and ongoing contribution of the universities in the SADC regional policy imperatives; it is critical that member states work with the higher education sector’s leadership to realise a more optimal funding model.”

Regional challenges

The hope is that closer alignment with SADC will also bring more government support for SARUA – a move Kotecha believes will be in the direct interests of the region’s higher education institutions which still face significant challenges.

“Higher education is still fragmented across the region and the SARUA Exco has motivated that closer strategic, organisational and programme alignment between SARUA and SADC will begin to address shared challenges facing higher education institutions,” Kotecha told University World News.

Kotecha’s message to the conference in Durban was that while the region’s higher education institutions were under pressure to become more internationalised in order to remain competitive, they faced real constraints, including political, cultural and linguistic diversity, low funding bases and inadequate funding models – currently under the spotlight in South Africa through the #FeesMustFall movement and now spreading beyond South Africa – as well as high youth unemployment.

In addition, the region faced a number of evolving challenges such as the growing demand for relevance and quality, the need to match academic programmes and curricula with labour market demand, and the proliferation of private post-secondary and tertiary education institutions.

“Against this backdrop, higher education is expected to collaborate and play an active and meaningful role in the region on many fronts,” she said. Kotecha said despite the challenges facing SADC institutions, the benefits of internationalisation were considerable. “Among other benefits, it opens students’ minds, broadens their perspectives, and helps to challenge xenophobia,” she said in her presentation.

Harmonisation

While strategic alignment with SADC is a key SARUA priority for 2018, another is quality assurance enhancement – an important component in regional integration and internationalisation.

In 2018 SARUA aims to strengthen existing partnerships and actively represent SADC university interests in quality assurance programmes and initiatives, including the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation or HAQAA Initiative, funded by the European Union in partnership with the African Union, and the Credit Transfer System. SARUA represents the region on the HAQAA advisory board.

Kotecha said quality is a recognised priority for higher education across Africa and there were many continental and regional initiatives underway that aim to address, inter alia, harmonisation of accreditation systems, external quality assurance frameworks, capacity development for internal quality assurance, developing credit transfer systems and enabling student and lecturer mobility.

“In 2018 SARUA will strengthen existing partnerships and actively represent SADC university interests in quality assurance programmes and initiatives,” she said.
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