University partnerships could help achieve the SDGs

The African Network for Internationalization of Education, or ANIE, held its 6th annual conference in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania from 7-9 October 2015. It could not have come at a better time – just a week after ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, at a meeting of heads of states in New York.

It was therefore one of the first events in which the contributions of the international dimension of higher education to the newly launched SDGs were discussed.

The conference had as its theme “From MDGs to SDGs: The contribution of international higher education”, and brought together more than 200 participants from some 30 countries.

The delegates included researchers, practitioners, international office directors, higher education leaders, government officials and students. ANIE organised the conference in collaboration with the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and the Open University of Tanzania.

Higher education and the SDGs

There was consensus that it would not be feasible to attain the SDGs without the involvement of higher education.

The international dimension of higher education – through collaborative research in different fields, capacity building initiatives, cross-cultural exchanges and other mobility outcomes – would be useful in securing the SDGs. This was succinctly underscored by Dr Jo Beall of British Council in her keynote speech.

Just like its pioneering role in internationalisation in Africa, through the conference ANIE opened up debate on the place of internationalisation of higher education in the SDGs. The conference regarded the international dimension as integral to realising the new goals.

In the same vein, Professor Tolly Mbwette, president of the Pan African University Council, urged African governments to support inter-university cooperation and the Pan African University initiative as efforts that will enable the continent to develop specialised expertise.

While several questions were raised – and looking back at the limited engagement of higher education in debates around and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs –universities were challenged at the conference to rise up and play their rightful role in the new development agenda.

Collaboration and opportunities

Professor Chika Sehoole, chair of ANIE, reaffirmed the organisation’s commitment to undertaking high quality research and capacity building, and providing stimulating platforms for debates on the international dimension of higher education in Africa.

Participants from sister organisations who attended the conference confirmed the commitment of their groups to work with ANIE and other African higher education organisations to pursue the SDGs.

These included representatives from the British Council, EP-Nuffic – the service centre for internationalisation in Dutch education – and Swiss-Africa cooperation.

Dr Juma Shabani, formerly of UNESCO, urged African universities to develop strategies that could enable them to take advantage of new initiatives on the continent and other contemporary global developments.

In his presentation, he gave insights into several opportunities that could contribute immensely to attempts by universities to engage with the SDGs through their missions of teaching, research and community engagement.

He further noted that unlike the MDGs that focused on developing countries, the SDGs had an inclusive approach to development involving both developing and developed countries.

It was agreed that SDG#4 which is about education, and SDG#17 which highlights partnerships, were crucial for higher education. Several of the papers that were presented at the conference focused on these areas.

The importance of partnerships

African universities, which operate under severe resource constraints, were urged to position themselves to play a key role in contributing to meeting the SDGs through partnerships. On their own, universities and any other stakeholders could find it difficult to achieve the SDGs.

Shabani suggested that higher education institutions should be proactive in partnering with government and industry in their efforts to contribute to the SDGs.

Planning should include revision of the curriculum to be responsive to societal needs, a new paradigm of internationalisation of research collaboration, and joint authorship of articles.

New forms of training in high level skills at PhD level and collaboration with external institutions were among recommendations made for higher education institutions.

The nature of partnerships that are entered into came under special scrutiny, as one participant warned against the ‘cat and mouse’ form of partnership, where the mouse would always be the object and victim in the partnership.

The SDGs also came under critical review. African scholars were advised to critically and constructively engage with the SDG agenda, question new orthodoxies, and interrogate all narratives and counter narratives underpinning the SDGs.

In his closing keynote Dr Ebrima Sall, executive secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, challenged African scholars to run where others walked so as to secure a future that was already becoming very competitive. According to him, the sustainable future of Africa lay in the hands of its knowledge generation centres.

There was a similar message from Professor Yunus Mgaya of the Tanzania Commission for Universities, who urged African universities to be proactive and develop viable strategies and frameworks for the realisation of the SDGs. Internationalisation, according to him, offered several opportunities for collaborations that could guarantee a sustainable future.

A forum for reflection

The conference was successful in providing a forum for reflection on progress and challenges of the MDGs, and also ushered in the SDGs as a new development framework for the next 15 years.

As the role of higher education in the SDGs was clearly highlighted in these discussions, a challenge for ANIE is to call on African universities and other key actors in international higher education to foster more partnerships and engage in supportive activities that could enable universities to play a central role in attaining the SDGs.

Closing the conference, ANIE Secretary James Jowi remarked that the successful gathering was not aimed at coming up with solutions but at providing a forum for debate, dialogue and questions regarding the roles that universities could play from the onset in implementing the SDGs.

ANIE will in future events continue with debates around internationalisation and the SDGs.

Professor Chika Sehoole is a founding member and chair of the board of the African Network for Internationalization of Education, or ANIE, and head of the department of education management and policy studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. James Otieno Jowi is the founding executive director and secretary of ANIE, who also lectures in comparative and international education at the school of education, Moi University, Kenya.