Bringing out the best in African research

The African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, a unique network of 16 top African universities, was created in 2015 to grow the continent’s contribution to global research and raise the profile of its research globally. University World News spoke to its secretary-general, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, about how the alliance intends to “bring out the best in Africa”.

UWN: Why the emphasis on African research?

EA: Africa currently contributes less than 1% to global research output, even if that is growing now. Clearly that is too little. If Africa wants to develop faster, it needs to engage in more research. The best way to do this is through collaboration and inter-linkages.

Over the years, there have been smaller groupings and research networks in Africa but nothing as formal as ARUA, and nothing that brings together this number of top-level institutions, and focused solely on research. Our four main areas of interest are research, graduate trading, management of research and research advocacy. The last two in particular have not received much attention in the past at African universities.

UWN: How does ARUA choose its alliance members?

EA: Deciding on membership is potentially one of the most contentious issues. We currently have 16 members* listed in our concept note and we do not intend to grow beyond 25 over the next few years. The founding members are generally the leading or flagship universities in their countries with significant name recognition in the region.

We do not expect membership to be determined solely by ranking, but we are looking for universities that are leaders in their countries, and are ambitious to break the research drought and become globally competitive.

We are currently working on our Articles of Association which will define how we govern ourselves as a cooperative unit and determine our future growth. This document should help us establish and publicise eligibility criteria to guide potential members.

The criteria will ultimately be guided by institutional capacity and strength in respect of research and graduate training. Our focus is on universities that want to do more of good research and lead in the transformation of their countries.

Having said that, we are not an elitist body. We aim to bring out the best in Africa. That does not mean we want to exclude any university, but universities must fight for their place in the alliance. They must be ‘excellence minded’. Even those already a part of the alliance need to understand that their places may not necessarily be permanent.

UWN: Does ARUA have a plan to keep African PhDs in Africa?

EA: We want to promote Africa as a great place to study and do research. Many of those lost through the 'brain drain' are likely to have studied abroad and realised they could be more competitive from overseas bases. We want to change that.

We are committed to doing more training of PhDs in Africa and improving the research environment so that our researchers will not find it necessary to live in Europe or America in order to do good research.

Our vision is for African researchers to live in Africa, but be part of major global research networks and teams, and work with the world’s best universities and researchers. We certainly do not want our researchers to be isolated; we want them to work with the rest of the world and achieve a broader and longer reach.

We will launch our network and introduce it to international stakeholders and the African public at our upcoming conference under the theme "Research in Africa Rising". This is scheduled to take place at the University of Ghana from 3-4 April 2017.

The theme is intended to communicate the fact that African research is growing and becoming more relevant to socio-economic transformation in the region. Similarly, African researchers are gradually becoming more globally competitive, judging from the types of grants we see in some universities.

We maintain that the growth has to be more rapid. We expect 250 participants at this conference, and those participants from our member universities will be presenting the kind of research they do under ARUA’s thematic areas.

UWN: In an age of globalisation, what is the value of a continental network?

EA: The members of the alliance are also part of major global networks and will remain so. We believe in engaging globally using our collaborative strengths. The intention is not to cut African research and researchers off from the rest of the world. The real issue is: how do African universities mobilise resources and trends in Africa in order to do more for themselves, and rely to a greater extent on one another?

African universities working to support one another is the biggest thing that has happened in higher education in the region. Together we can face the world more equally!

UWN: What have been your priorities as secretary-general of ARUA?

EA: The most important issue so far has been to get members to agree on the rules of engagement. I have been working on these together with the board chairperson, Professor Max Price (University of Cape Town vice-chancellor), and co-chair Professor Adam Habib (University of the Witwatersrand vice-chancellor).

We have had to ensure that all 16 universities agree on how to engage one another, and how to mobilise and share resources. A strategy for advancing collaborative research was recently agreed at a meeting of the deputy vice-chancellors last January.

Going forward I am required to coordinate fundraising and provide the administrative support to ensure we have a structure that aids collaboration among all members. Because of the cost of travel, we try as much as possible to avoid physical meetings, relying on the internet and Skype. Fortunately, connectivity in Africa is improving all the time.

So far members have worked in a highly collaborative manner. ARUA was created in 2015, and for over a year before I took up the position, we operated largely by consensus among vice-chancellors at meetings.

What I am doing now is trying to put a structure in place for implementing the agreements we had earlier. It has not been that difficult; all university leaders face the same challenges in their universities and want to address them. In fact, the vice-chancellors have been extremely supportive and helpful.

UWN: What progress has ARUA made since 2015?

EA: Through our engagement with other networks, we have made progress in getting the world to know about Africa’s growing research capacity and productivity and encouraging people to take African research more seriously. Our intention is to continue to raise the profile of African research.

There is good research in Africa that has not gained sufficient visibility, partly owing to the kinds of journals in which researchers are publishing. We intend to encourage and support researchers to publish in the best international journals.

We have identified 13 key research focus areas across all disciplines. They include six areas in natural sciences: climate change; food security; non-communicable diseases; materials development and nanotechnology; energy; and water conservation. In the area of social sciences and humanities there are seven areas: mobility and migration; poverty and inequality; unemployment and skills development; notions of identity; good governance; post-conflict societies; and urbanisation and habitable cities.

They are clearly relevant to Africa’s future and provide cutting-edge research opportunities. At the deputy vice-chancellor’s meeting on 19-20 January in Accra, Ghana, we agreed on the setting up of thematic research working groups that will work across the member universities for the purpose of generating research.

UWN: How will your academic background in economics assist you in your role?

EA: As an economist and former vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, I think I understand the need to pursue efficiency and competitiveness. ARUA’s success is very important to me, as it will confirm my strong conviction that research is the one important thing African nations cannot afford to ignore if they want to see better-performing economies.

UWN: What is the plan for ARUA’s funding?

EA: It is our intention that African institutions should contribute significantly to funding ARUA, and each member university is already paying an annual subscription fee towards the running of the organisation.

We are hoping to approach African international organisations and sub-regional associations, as well as the private sector for support. These are sources that have not been properly tapped over the years. We plan to work more closely with them for mutual benefit. One of my jobs is to try to raise funds in as many areas as possible, and we are not excluding organisations in the Global North.

We have already secured a grant from the Mellon Foundation for research and capacity development in the area of migration and mobility; and initial support for ARUA was received from the Kresge Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, both based in the United States.

These grants were secured on the understanding that African institutions would also provide resources from within. It is in that spirit that the National Research Foundation in South Africa has recently made a generous grant to the alliance. We appreciate all of this.

* Current members of ARUA include: the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria; the University of Ghana; the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; the universities of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Rhodes, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa; the University of Nairobi in Kenya; the University of Rwanda; the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal; Makerere University in Uganda; and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.