EU-AFRICA: University ties to be deepened

New plans for broadening the two-way street between African and European universities were unveiled at a conference in Brussels last week, where 150 delegates from both continents debated closer ties in higher education. The conference focused on a newly published White Paper on bridging arrangements between institutions and greater cooperation between scholars in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its conclusions follow studies and discussions staged through the European Union-funded Fostering Trust and Exchange between Europe and Africa 2008-2010, which the organisers claim was the first such project of its kind.

The leading partners were the Association of African Universities and the European Universities Association.

Belgium, currently holding the six-month rotating EU presidency, has organised a busy agenda for EU-African relations between now and the end of the year, of which the conference is a part.
It took place in the margins of an official visit to the EU headquarters by South African President Jacob Zuma.

Referring to the EU-South Africa Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed three years ago, Zuma went out of his way to praise the increased middle-level diplomatic activity brought about by the agreement for discussions on such topics as social issues, justice and - not least - education.

At the end of November an EU-Africa Summit is planned which will aim to pull all these strands together, as well as deal in high politics, in a way that will put relations on a closer basis.

Indeed those associated with the White Paper's drafting have promised to publish a lengthy statement just before the summit takes place, intended to remind leaders of the importance of tertiary education in the mosaic of their concerns.

According to the university conference organiser, Michael Hörig, the EUA's programme director, delegates were emphatic about the need for greater African participation in Erasmus Mundi programmes.

Everyone recognises that the exchanges are lop-sided. Some 18% of the EU's university population is from Africa with the majority of them going to the UK, Germany and France, in that order.

But in many cases a disincentive for European students or teachers to take up positions in Africa is the high student-teacher ratios and also, in the first place, a paucity of information in EU countries about what is on offer, and where, in African universities.

Indeed, the conference delegates put a high priority on the need for more information, aided if possible by EU governments.

Hörig said: "There's no doubt about a growing realisation on both sides that greater mobility between universities can only enhance the EU-Africa partnership.

"Greater academic mobility between the continents as part of development cooperation is something of a novelty so far but we have strong hopes that the White Paper will foster other schemes to provide closer contacts for both students and staff on both sides of the partnership."

Hörig stressed the document's three main themes. First, it addressed access to, and retention of, tertiary education. Second, it was concerned with mobility - not only for students and staff moving between the EU and Africa but within Africa itself. Third, the report's authors looked at different ways cooperation could be improved - for instance, how can the organisation and frequency of exchanges be improved.

The aim is to put all these issues higher up the EU's development programmes.

Hörig is optimistic about the long-range resonance the document will have. "Already two new projects have been spawned by the White Paper's preparation. One will be concerned with university quality assurance and the other with the improving doctoral education.

"I believe the time is right to see higher education in the context of all the other development programmes which have been well established for years," Hörig said.

He said that the 'logic' of cooperation in development issues was not challenged by any government or the EU institutions.

However, problems occurred on the ground - largely because while governments thought strategically, when educational institutions set up their stalls in places such as Kenya, for example, they tended to run them as purely bi-lateral exercises with little reference to other EU efforts in the same country.

"So I think the time is right to think much more about higher education and the contribution it can make in and around development policy questions," he added.