New directions for Association of African Universities

Forty-six years after it was founded, the Association of African Universities (AAU) has more than 300 members and has put in place numerous initiatives to improve the quality of administration and education in universities across the continent, Secretary General Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile told University World News.

Ehile, who was appointed to lead the association in September last year, said the AAU had “achieved a lot” since coming into being in 1967. It had launched programmes that helped “address key issues of higher education in Africa” and had changed the face of the sector.

He was interviewed ahead of the AAU’s 13th Conference of Rectors, Vice-chancellors and Presidents of African Universities, or COREVIP, held in Gabon’s capital Libreville late last month under the theme “Transforming African Higher Education for Graduate Employability and Socio-economic Development”.

Capacity building

Six years ago, the UK’s Department of Foreign and International Development, DFID, funded an AAU project to improve collaboration among African universities. The Mobilising Regional Capacity Initiative enabled the association to provide grants to 40 universities.

“We have been able to build capacity across the continent and have used this to create a platform for universities to build together through shared experiences,” said Ehile.

Two training programmes – one on leadership for senior university managers and the other on management training for middle-level staff – are still running. Ehile is overseeing the leadership programme, which he previously undertook as a vice-chancellor.

Each year, he said, there were two training workshops, one targeting Anglophone and the other, Francophone universities.

The association was now looking at how to put the two workshops together “to share experience” – indeed, under Ehile the AAU is working hard to bridge the communication and engagement gap between Anglophone and Francophone universities.

Another major focus has been to raise the profile of higher education in Africa and polish its image. “Higher education has not been a priority in the past because basic education has been the sole concern of African governments.

“However, the AAU has been able to change that status quo and today higher education is receiving the priority it deserves.”

“You cannot achieve the development goals in Africa without higher education. We are not saying that basic education should not be prioritised, but we want more emphasis to be put on higher education,” he said.

Connectivity and research

Ehile said that in the area of information and communication technology, internet access across university campuses had been a problem in the past. However, this had changed in recent years, partly because the AAU has been able to put connectivity programmes in place.

“The bandwidth issue was expensive; we set up a unit to deal with it,” he said, adding that internet access was no longer a major issue and, among many other things, this was helping to improve quality assurance in universities across the continent.

Currently, the AAU is hosting the African Quality Assurance Network, AfriQAN, which is working to support the improvement and maintenance of quality at all levels of university activity.

“It brings together a certain number of universities to share success stories. This has been going on for four years. It is not that easy, but when someone who has already experienced a process turns around to tell you how he started it and how he is moving forward, it is a good experience to share.”

Another area that has worried Ehile is research – and he is determined to use his tenure as secretary general to improve research productivity in Africa.

“Research is a key issue and it will give new information for teaching and innovation,” he said. It could also be used by universities to generate funding. “We all also know that without research there is not promotion in the university.”

Ehile said the AAU had also set in motion new programmes to encourage academic and student mobility across Africa and to connect with Africans in the diaspora. “We are trying to get Africans in the disapora back to help high education,” he said.

Most were worried about research conditions at African universities, and Ehile said that the association was very keen to work on this.

Involving the private sector

Another area that the AAU is working on is how to involve the private sector in funding universities across Africa. This issue has been discussed at length across the continent – and was a major topic at last month’s AAU general conference.

Collaboration between the private sector and universities was working in some countries, Ehile said, and was extremely important for the development of higher education. The AAU has been looking into this area, and “we have been able to make some strides”. Guidelines had been prepared after a survey was conducted.

“Some universities in Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana are doing well with collaboration with the private sector, and we would like to share these success stories with others who have not yet tried it,” he said.

Ehile had some suggestions for universities that wanted to join forces with the private sector. If a university was able to draw up a programme that benefited both it and private enterprise, it would be better able to secure support. “These are new grounds for vice-chancellors to look at, if they want to generate more funding,” he said.

Attracting new sources of funding could not be done in vacuum, however, and Ehile urged university administrators to look more into research-related relationships. “Research is the way to promote and get additional funding for universities.”

The secretary general admitted that not all organisations in Africa were used to funding universities. In order to change perceptions, universities needed to improve the ways in which they communicated with business and industry.

“The first problem to overcome is information because it is the key issue in this process and approach. It would also be important to highlight the interest of universities in what they want to do – this is likely to create a win-win partnership,” he said.

The autonomy issue

In the face of decreasing government support for universities across Africa, Ehile was convinced that private sector collaboration could help to improve their financial position.

African governments should consider making universities more autonomous, so they had the ability to become more financially independent.

In Francophone countries, he said, tuition fees were low and this had severely affected the ability of universities to raise funds to support projects. “If you grant autonomy to universities to shape their own initiatives, they could improve on how they raise funds.

“Collaboration with the private sector, if it is well planned and well explored, could bring new resources to universities,” he added.

Ehile would love to see a situation where political leaders did not meddle in the appointments of top university managers, which he said should be based on merit – and indeed in many countries such moves are under way or have happened.

“In some countries they appoint good politicians to head universities, but there is no way that the AAU can interfere in these countries.”

Political meddling had also affected academic freedom in some countries, Ehile said. But while the AAU knew about such problems, it could not oppose the politics of any nation.

“It is good to appoint someone with the requisite knowledge in leadership, but if a country decides to appoint a vice-chancellor because of his political affiliations, the AAU cannot fight this. We can only advise.”

“All we can do is that when vice-chancellors are newly appointed, we offer them our training programme to lead universities.” This enabled new vice-chancellors to dig deeper into leadership issues, and to “focus their attention in order to be productive”.

There were some universities, he added, that still did not even have strategic plans. Training new leaders to draft strategic plans could make a considerable difference.


The harmonisation of the administrative systems, as well as the teaching, research and community engagement programmes, will go a long way in comparing the quality of output of the universities. I strongly believe the Pan-African University in Addis Ababa (now called the Pan Atlantic University) and its five regional centres can play an important role in this initiative.

Solomon Yirenkyi-Boateng on the University World News Facebook page

African universities are faced with rising costs in the face of declining economies. It would take an improved microeconomy to boost purchasing power of clients for adequate pricing of higher education and subsequent control of quality.

Adelokun Adedapo on the University World News Facebook page