SOUTHERN AFRICA: Regional integration and higher education

In a recent report, the Southern African Regional Universities' Association, Sarua, started on the complex subject of regional integration and what it means for higher education. The Challenges of Regional Integration and its Implications for Higher Education aims to "set the background for engagement" around regional integration rather than provide definitive answers or proposals.

The report is one of the regional body's 2009 Leadership Dialogue Series. Comprising four papers authored by prominent researchers - Enver Motala, Ogochukwu Nzewi, Mario Scerri and Mammo Muchie - the report published last October takes a continent-wide approach to its topic and operates largely at the level of theory.

Individually, the papers encompass issues ranging from contested approaches to regional integration to the need for a new conceptualisation of universities in Africa, the role of regional economic communities as building blocks of regionalism, and the formation of regional innovation systems.

Common to all four contributions is a notable scepticism towards a-historical interpretations of Africa's development and the prospects for regional integration.

While there is little direct engagement in the report with the 'implications' of regionalisation for higher education, in keeping with Sarua's stated intentions there is a concerted attempt to lay the groundwork for discussion around issues, rather than provide a prescriptive list of challenges and potential remedies.

A relatively young organisation which began its work as an independent entity in 2007 with funding from the Dutch government, Sarua is only at the beginning of a "long and challenging path", according to its financial manager Richard Henson.

The report's publication thus marks "the opening of the doors to a debate" that in time will lead to a more nuanced and deeper understanding both of the huge diversity of social, cultural, political and economic backgrounds among Southern African Development Community or SADC nation states and the region's common challenges, said Henson.

Widely viewed as a significant tool for economic growth and development, regional integration is a complicated business, resting as it does at the nexus of a wide range of socio-cultural, historical, political and economic factors.

But as Sarua CEO and series editor Piyushi Kotecha notes in the report's foreword, the process of regionalisation is "as inevitable as it is complex". Thus, understanding what regionalisation will mean for SADC's 70 publicly -funded higher education institutions has become increasingly pressing, for two main reasons.

The first is a renewed interest in higher education from donors and international agencies, following an earlier 'de-emphasis' on higher education in Africa. According to World Bank research released in 2008, this withdrawal coincided with a three-fold increase in enrolments at tertiary level in Sub-Sahara Africa between 1991 and 2005.

Such 'de-emphasis' was motivated by "neo-classical exchange economy theory", according to development theorist Mammo Muchie, who contributes the report's final paper. Muchie argues that research done by African economists now shows that human capital, developed through higher education, has "as large a growth impact as physical capital investment".

Sarua itself operates on the premise that universities are major contributors towards knowledge economies, socio-economic and cultural development and the eradication of poverty.

Thus the latest report on regionalisation aims not only to build Sarua's 'orientation' to building regional capacity in higher education institutions, but also to create more understanding, among policy makers and analysts, of the "purposes and possibilities for higher education's role".

Kotecha herself argues that however unclear the implications of regional integration for higher education may be, the improved health and stability of the sector is a central priority.

"A vigorous, interconnected university sector will be essential if higher education is to take its rightful place in the complex process of designing and implementing the sort of regionalisation that will lift Southern Africa from the chronic fragmentation, under-development and marginalisation that currently characterises too many of its member countries," she writes.

The second reason behind the renewed focus on regional integration is the African Union's 2007 Harmonisation of Higher Education Programmes strategy which seeks, inter alia, ways to counter the negative impact on student mobility and regional integration arising out of the lack of mutual recognition of "various forms of certification".

Central to the AU's current strategy is its recognition of the role of a "revitalised and reoriented" higher education sector in the continent's development. As a sign of its status, higher education has thus been included as one of the seven areas of focus in the AU's "Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa".

A not-for-profit leadership association made up of the heads of 49 public universities in 15 countries of SADC, Sarua's work is invariably guided by the broader goals of the continent.

Henson said regional economic, and ultimately political, integration is the stated goal of the AU and its regional economic communities such as SADC. "It is therefore a topic that a regional body such as Sarua, which draws its membership from the SADC block countries, must actively engage in."

But he said the organisation's focus at this stage was primarily on encouraging meaningful collaboration, rather than on integration among higher education institutions in the region.

While Sarua recognised and respected the independence and autonomy of each of its individual member institutions, in a region where quality higher education institutions are relatively scarce, he said the organisation was committed to exploring opportunities for the mutually beneficial sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources.

Henson said this would contribute to the overall enhancement of higher education capacity in the region, particularly at a leadership level.

A key driver in these efforts is Sarua's flagship governance, leadership and management programme, which aims to strengthen leadership capacity and build collaborative networks at three leadership levels: vice chancellor, senior management and middle management. The latest report supports the leadership dialogue events offered by Sarua to vice-chancellors.

"We hope that the Regional Integration publication will make some contribution to a more informed debate around a topic that will be with us for a long time to come," said Henson.