International cooperation – Boosting African research

Following global trends, internationalisation in Africa’s higher education landscape is driven by a range of interconnecting new developments – an increase in the number of students and institutions, more mobility of students and staff across national boundaries, the growing role of English in teaching and research, improved internet connectivity and a host of policy initiatives such as centres of excellence, quality assurance frameworks and programmes to enhance institutional collaboration.

Africa’s research-active universities are often looked upon as role models for, and sources of inspiration on, how to learn and benefit from these processes. These universities are usually engaged in international research cooperation, and in doing so follow international standards of scientific conduct.

Joining forces with partners abroad enables access to knowledge, skills, facilities, infrastructure and funding from elsewhere, which may contribute to improved quality of teaching, training and learning.

At the level of individual researchers and their research managers, being exposed to international contacts is likely to contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge, improve interpersonal and intercultural communication and mediation skills, and also the ability to engage effectively in networking and teamwork-based problem-solving.

These professional competences are now seen as highly valued assets that may enhance mobility and employability, and create transferable skills for both students and staff to help them move more easily across geographical borders within world science.

Benefitting from internationalisation in terms of staff development, and providing new opportunities for junior staff to obtain PhDs, African universities can push ‘fast forward’ by connecting more effectively to global research networks.

The findings of our study for HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – show that several African research universities are already heavily engaged in this process.

Linking up with colleagues in the world’s advanced economies will no doubt strengthen their research capacity, enhance university ICT infrastructures, develop a new generation of African academics and help to forge strategic alliances with high quality research partners.

It is also crucial in educating globally competent graduates and to reversing Africa’s academic brain drain.

The empirical data story

Focussing on the internationalisation of research activities, data were collected and analysed on general trends from 2006-12.

We took a closer look at eight major universities within the Sub-Saharan science landscape – Botswana, Cape Town in South Africa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, Mauritius, and Nairobi in Kenya.

Our comparative analysis was based on research publications in peer-reviewed scholarly and technical journals. These documents are often seen as the prime output of high quality scientific knowledge production.

And although they represent merely a tip of the iceberg of the daily publication deluge in global science, they are a very interesting tip because this is what internationalisation may lead to – producing high quality science with publications to show for it that deserve and gain international visibility.

Extensive international contacts and successful long-term collaborative activities producing such research papers are bound to have significant impacts such as the increased production of research publications, attracting foreign academic staff and foreign PhDs, and acquiring funding from international sources.

Our study finds that the number of internationally co-authored journal articles is steadily increasing. Some of the eight universities are internationalising very rapidly and are clearly generating a greater international presence for African science.

Strong fields are getting stronger

The general impression is that the universities are mainly expanding on, and gaining from, strengths in pre-existing high quality fields – the strong fields of science are getting stronger.

Currently many areas of growth are in the medical and life sciences. Clinical medicine is one of the major research strengths in the universities’ international research partnership profiles.

Given the urgency of local socio-economic problems, research universities obviously must devote considerable resources to disease-related problems in Africa. But they must also broaden their knowledge and skills base to other fields and domains of societal relevance, where international cooperation can boost scientific performance and research capabilities.

Under the right conditions there is a fair chance that this will eventually happen, if only because successful research internationalisation programmes tend to leverage spill-over effects beyond the rapidly internationalising field itself – in supporting adjacent fields of science, promoting international quality standards, and transferring new insights and innovative technologies from research into science-based education or community services.

The significant increase in internationally co-authored research publications also implies that the required financial and human resources, and research infrastructure, within the universities are improving and-or expanding.

This suggests the presence of sustainable in-house organisational units, research environments and international networks to support and drive such growth processes – in which, hopefully, talented PhD students or local researchers have been recruited or trained to become Africa’s new generation of elite scientists and scholars.

Moreover, one may also expect that international partners have affected local research capacity building, which in turn may help create more effective organisational and managerial structures.

However we also see wide diversity across the eight universities, which is to be expected.

Each university operates within a unique environment of national and institutional determinants, incentives, ambitions and obstacles. And each defines its own distinctive research specialisation profile with areas of science strengths and growth trajectories in international research.

The observed institutional diversity and dynamics raise important questions as to how such a diversity of internationalisation activities and trajectories should be monitored, coordinated and managed within African universities.

Risks and threats

Research internationalisation is a dynamic environment that opens up huge opportunities but it may also pose serious threats to participants. African scholars might be tempted to leave for better circumstances and opportunities outside Africa.

Those risks include the perpetuation of brain drain, commodification and commercialisation of research outputs, and unfair collaborative arrangements dominated by hegemonic universities in advanced economies.

Although internationalisation attracts foreign research funding and opens up opportunities for additional funds, emphasising and prioritising the drive towards further internationalisation may also draw away scarce resources that could perhaps be better deployed for the other important institutional roles – and often contradictory functions – of research universities in Africa.

University managements should develop institutional policies and strategies for internationalisation so that it is not treated as an incoherent and uncoordinated activity.

The choices made by university administrators, and their reasons for doing so, raise a host of questions as to how far and how rapidly internationalisation of research is allowed to spread within a university before perceived short-term disadvantages are seen to outweigh anticipated longer-term benefits.

There has also been lack of institutional dialogue about the realities and consequences of research internationalisation, which may have emerged despite – or because of? – weak governance structures and regulatory frameworks, poor planning and inadequate financial support. This presents a research management dilemma.

Some conclusions

Most African research-intensive universities do not have clear policies and strategies on how to manage international cooperation – in part because of the decentralised nature of research activity and the autonomy of academic staff, but also because of short-termism.

In a rush to embrace and benefit from international engagement, research universities run the risk of focussing too much on quick gains and income generation, rather than emphasising longer term sustainability, quality assurance mechanisms and how internationalisation may fit more effectively within the university’s mission profile.

Research internationalisation, effective resources development and strategic management are indispensable for boosting the scientific power of Africa’s research universities.

Ultimately, many African research universities will become full members of the global knowledge society, and in the process will contribute more and more to socio-economic development in their countries.

Robert Tijssen is associate professor at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is the coordinator of the Netherlands Observatory of Science and Technology, and the producer of the bi-annual Science and Technology Indicators Report for the Dutch government. Tijssen is also currently a visiting professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy – SciSTIP – at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.


  • • Tijssen R (2015) “African Flagship Universities and their International Research Cooperation”. In: N Cloete, P Maassen and T Bailey (eds), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.