African Research Universities Alliance launched

Fifteen universities from eight African countries have launched an alliance of research universities, at the African Higher Education Summit in Senegal’s capital Dakar. The focus of the group will be to build African research excellence as a “vital precondition” for the continent to develop and exert control over its future.

Leading institutions with strong research and postgraduate training joined the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, with its first chair being Dr Max Price of the University of Cape Town.

The initiative got powerful support at its launch on the sidelines of the summit from the chair of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – who, ARUA said, had inspired its formation with her recent comments on the urgent need to strengthen African research and universities.

The alliance follows in the footsteps and shares the aims of other research university consortiums around the world – such as the League of European Research Universities and the Group of Eight in Australia – that advocate for strengthening research and postgraduate training in higher education.

Also, Price said: “The intention is to bring together our distinctive fields of expertise to achieve complementary and coordinated programmes of research and training, including addressing the key development priorities of the African continent.”

The universities include Lagos, Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo in Nigeria, the University of Ghana, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the National University of Rwanda, Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, and in South Africa the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, KwaZulu-Natal and Rhodes.

Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who represents the south of Africa in the alliance’s founding executive committee, said: “The primary focus of ARUA is to build indigenous research excellence with the intention of asserting Africa as a powerful global force.”

At its founding meeting in Dakar, ARUA agreed to establish a small secretariat comprising a secretary general to assist with implementing alliance initiatives, and an executive committee of one vice-chancellor each from the African regions represented among its members and from Francophone Africa.

Catalytic not elitist

The vice-chancellors stressed that the alliance should be seen as a catalytic rather than an elitist group. It will use the strengths of member universities to boost research and higher education across the continent – nipping in the bud the primary criticism they knew would be levelled against ARUA.

While the number of universities in the group will not expand much – experience has shown that large groups can become unwieldy and ineffective – ARUA will also identify research nodes and centres of excellence around Africa to work with.

The idea is not only to strengthen research in alliance members but for strong research universities to form a hub that supports excellence in other institutions across the continent “through advocacy for research, joint research projects, postgraduate training, providing access to research facilities, and linkages to research universities globally”, said an alliance release.

Dlamini-Zuma said she was excited about the idea of ARUA as a catalyst for igniting research across Africa. The alliance also raised the “key issue of the need to cooperate”.

The alliance agreed that while no individual university had the capacity to make a difference to research and PhD production on a continental level – together they did. Rather than look only to the North for support, Africa could also draw on what existed internally, for example for co-supervision and research equipment.

Main areas of work

There will be three main thrusts to the work of ARUA – improving training and support for PhD students, capacity building to enhance research management, and collaborative research.

Cooperation, said Price, could lead to joint PhD programmes, better support for young researchers and the ability to keep them within Africa, and research initiatives that spanned several universities – such activities could be a game-changer for African research.

“We asked, is there something unique that gives universities a reason to belong to the alliance? We believe that research infrastructure – equipment and people – at each of our universities is not strong enough but together we are.”

One of the first actions of ARUA will be to conduct an audit of what is available across member universities. “Then we will be able to make this capacity available to doctoral students across the alliance.” There will also be a focus on research management and support.

The alliance will identify a few big research programmes that will span a large number of member universities, and seek funding for them. Research areas will be selected in line with African priorities, as articulated in the African Union’s recently approved ‘Agenda 2063’.

Research will be multidisciplinary and span the social sciences, humanities and sciences. Professor Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, will lead the work of identifying the first major research programme, working with the top research executives of alliance universities. Habib gave space sciences and Big Data as examples of areas that could be promising for major research.

Need for support

One extremely important aspect of ARUA’s strategy is that it will be owned and driven by African universities. Its work will draw primarily on African resources – including, down the line, the resources of member universities themselves – rather than be completely reliant on international donors.

“The alliance can only be successful if we have the commitment and support from key stakeholders in government, the higher education sector, and local and global funding agencies,” said Habib.

“Africa’s time is now – this is an opportunity for Africans to thrive and to contribute towards finding the solutions to the complex problems facing the development of our continent today, and in the future.”

* The African Higher Education Summit was live streamed courtesy of The World Bank. To watch plenary sessions in the English stream until mid-May 2015, click here.

* The African Higher Education Summit was hosted by the government of Senegal and organised by TrustAfrica. Other partners included the African Union Commission, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, UN African Institute for Development and Economic Planning, Association of African Universities, African Development Bank, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Carnegie Corporation of New York, MasterCard Foundation and the World Bank.