Will the new African passport improve academic mobility?

The African Union Commission has launched an African passport, signalling open, visa-free access to all 54 of the continent’s member nations. However, if this free passage is to benefit higher education and science, it must be accompanied by harmonised qualifications, greater bureaucratic efficiency and infrastructure to support academic mobility, experts say.

Initially, the passport will be available only to African Union dignitaries and officials before being made available to citizens of AU member states. According to the continent’s new 50-year plan known as Agenda 2063, full roll-out of the passport is due to be complete by 2018.

The head of the education division in the African Union’s department of human resources, science and technology, Dr Beatrice Khamati Njenga, said the passport would enhance intra-African academic mobility and intra-African collaboration.

“Our ambition around the harmonisation of higher education in Africa is more valid if cross-border travel is uninhibited,” she told University World News.

African solutions

Njenga said developing African solutions to Africa’s challenges was impossible outside of strengthened partnerships among African intellectuals and researchers. In this respect, the African passport was both important and useful.

She noted that there was still some work to be done to ensure compatibility among different systems of higher education and scholarship on the continent.

“We are at the advanced stages of developing the relevant continental policy frameworks for harmonisation, mutual recognition of qualifications and continental qualification frameworks, which then have to be domesticated and implemented at national and institutional levels,” she said.

Njenga cautioned that even if researchers and students were able to move freely, there were other issues that could limit collaboration, such as concerns about biosafety in bioscience research.

Felicia Kuagbedzi, communications and publications officer for the Association of African Universities, said the association anticipated broader promotion of student and faculty mobility on the continent as countries would be able to attract and retain, even temporarily, some measure of talent for the economy and research systems of the host country.

Exchange deterrents

Dr Christoff Pauw, programme manager for the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa, said a system to ease movement across African borders would go a long way towards more substantial intra-African academic exchange and collaboration. However, he raised doubts about whether the passport would become widely available.

"Whether enough African governments will actually support the proposed African passport remains to be seen. I doubt that the passport would be rolled out on mass scale, and if it does, that it will flow smoothly,” he said.

Currently, delays in the issuing of permits as well as costs in obtaining such permits were real deterrents to exchanges, explaining, in part, the limited numbers of African students studying in other African countries, he said.

As a result of these deterrents, students typically moved only when they received a scholarship to study towards a full degree in another country, and not for semester abroad exchanges.

Bureaucratic and financial barriers

Pauw suggested that governments should invest in improving their existing visa regulations, especially by lowering barriers and costs for academic purposes, particularly for research.

“We need to reach the point where an established scholar does not need to think twice about whether they will be granted access upon arrival if they can prove that the nature of their visit is academic,” he said.

In past years, South Africa could have hosted many more excellent African scholars for meetings or conferences who were prevented from attending because their visa was not issued in good time, or was simply too difficult and costly to obtain, he said.

“I gather that matters have improved lately and I encourage further improvement in systems – and let’s leave the grand schemes like an AU passport on the shelf for now.”

Professor Jenny J Lee of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States and a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town in South Africa told University World News that, given current bureaucratic and financial hurdles in acquiring visas in Africa as well as the economic disparities between countries, particularly between South Africa and most African countries, an African passport would probably not materialise.

Identity and infrastructure

“The challenge in obtaining visas in South Africa, for example, is not simply a matter of changing visa policies, but more importantly a matter of forging a common African identity and agenda. With ongoing xenophobic violence against African immigrants as threats to local labour, the problems might escalate,” she said.

Lee observed that, in regard to higher education, most countries still lack the higher education infrastructure to accommodate more students and the adequate services to support their diverse needs.

“International studies also experience xenophobia. With increased mobility, there needs to be increased attention to the education and experiences of international students upon their arrival to ensure their transition and success,” she said. “I doubt such effects are being considered.”

Continental imbalance

Lee said an African passport would likely not lead to mutual exchange between countries, but rather to greater continental imbalance with the vast majority seeking to study in South Africa.

She noted that, despite having a strong higher education system, South Africa was still grappling to meet the demand for access from its own students and had limited capacity to absorb those from outside the country. With increasing demand internationally, universities would have to accommodate greater numbers or admit fewer local students, she said.

“A passport for higher education should not only ease the flow of international students coming in, but also take into account the infrastructure to accommodate them,” Lee said.