AFRICA: Funding fears for Pan-African University

The setting up of the Pan-African University, which is due to go live in September, is facing a fresh threat, with the African Union yet to announce funding for the facility meant to help supply the continent's high-level skills.

African education ministers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, this month for the fourth Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union, or COMEDAF, criticised the AU's push to establish the institution in the next four months when it had not allocated funds towards the project.

Going with the mood of the meeting, host countries could also fail to fund the project by September.

The African Union (AU) has dithered in releasing the fiscal plan. Kenya is announcing its budget for the coming financial year in mid-June and fear is mounting that the Pan-African University allocation will be left out as the finance ministry has finalised the budget plans.

"It's likely the university will go live in September," said Kenya's Higher Education Permanent Secretary Professor Chrispus Kiamba at the COMEDAF meeting. But he feared "the project may face implementation bottlenecks" if the AU does not reveal the funding allocation to the project soon.

"The AU has to be clear and say what funding and resource allocations they are giving."

But AU Director of Human Resources, Science and Technology Vera Ngosi told reporters on the sidelines of the Nairobi meeting that the financial estimates are yet to be concluded, a communication that did not go down well with the ministers.

"We still don't have final estimates but the project is worth millions of dollars. Host countries are also expected to contribute to the project depending on their gross domestic product. It is not easy to quantify the cost." Ngosi added that the costs would also vary according to the host institutions' facilities.

As previously reported in University World News, the Pan African University (PAU) is an AU-sponsored specialised postgraduate training and research institution comprising a network of university 'nodes' in five regions, which is being created to boost Africa's science-related skills.

Teething problems, including disputes between countries in selecting host universities and setting up infrastructural and administrative systems, have already delayed the roll-out of the university by more than a year. It was to be set up in mid-2010.

While three of the five geographical regions have picked the countries and institutions that will host the institution, two - North and Southern Africa - are yet to arrive at a decision, further delaying the establishment of the key facility.

But even for the three regions - Eastern, Western and Central - that have settled on countries and universities to host the 'nodes', there are growing worries over the AU delay in releasing the financial plan and the funds.

Kenya will be the East Africa hub for basic sciences, technology and innovation, and has selected Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, its fourth largest university by student numbers, to host the region's PAU node.

Vice-chancellor Professor Mabel Imbuga said the university was in the process of admitting the first students to join the new institution, to be known as the PAU Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation, even as it awaits the AU's directions on funding.

West Africa will focus on earth and life sciences, with the node based at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. The Central African hub is Cameroon, whose University of Yaounde will cover social and human sciences and governance.

Southern Africa will concentrate on space sciences and North Africa was allocated water and energy sciences (including climate change). But national bickering has delayed the selection of host countries and universities in these regions.

Participants at COMEDAF were told the satellite 'nodes' would be one-third funded by the host country, one-third by the AU - mainly in the form of fellowships - and one-third by a lead partner to be identified in each region.

For Kenya, Japan has emerged as the top contender for lead partner to support the satellite institution, while Germany might help to fund the North African node. Last year AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, Jean-Pierre Ezin, said Sweden might fund the Cameroon 'node' while India could support the Nigeria hub.

No new infrastructure will initially be constructed for the PAU. Rather, existing facilities in the five host universities will be used as satellites campuses. According to deliberations at the COMEDAF meeting, most of the funding will be spent on bursaries for postgraduate students.

The AU is also in the process of recruiting a vice-chancellor for the PAU, and hopes to have a person in place by the end of this year, further raising hopes that the institution could go live before the end of the year, even if only in some regions.

The PAU is intended to strengthen higher education in Africa, especially postgraduate training and research. It hopes to capitalise on the performances of strong universities to contribute to development in priority areas, and to build high-level skills and research production. AU officials said the institution would also enhance mobility of students, lecturers, researchers and administrative staff among African universities.