The AAU – A continuous champion of higher education

The Association of African Universities, or AAU, was founded in Morocco in 1967 with 34 of the then existing 46 higher education institutions in Africa. Today the association has a membership of 386 African higher education institutions from 46 countries and has just celebrated its Golden Jubilee. University World News spoke to AAU Secretary General Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile about what the next 50 years holds for the organisation.

UWN: Given all the effort and preparation that went into the 14th General Conference of the AAU and the Golden Jubilee Celebrations, were all your expectations for the conference met and how?

EE: Indeed, organising such a huge conference targeting chief executives of African higher education and industry players was a huge undertaking. I am happy to note that all the hard work of the able AAU secretariat staff and local organising committees paid off. The sheer number of participants – 500 – and the rich diversity of people who attended the conference all speak to this.

The 14th General Conference was formally opened by no other than the president of the host country of Ghana, His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. In attendance were also ministers of higher education of the Gambia, Botswana, Sudan and Ghana, among others. Vice-chancellors from AAU member universities, chief executive officers from industry, and some of our development partners all participated in this very important event.

UWN: What do you consider the biggest achievements of the AAU?

EE The Association of African Universities has chalked up several achievements overs its period of existence. Among these are the following:
  • • The era of the 1980s and 1990s saw dwindling attention to higher education with key international institutions, including The World Bank and even some African governments, downplaying the role of higher education in favour of basic education in the promotion of the 'Education for All' policy. Here, the AAU was one of the few African institutions that consistently stood for and promoted higher education until this policy was reversed in the 1990s.

  • • The organisation has implemented key programmes over the years to build capacity of Africans. These include the Africa Centers of Excellence Project; the Inter-Africa Scholarship Programme (2,000); the International Fellowships Program in collaboration with the Ford Foundation (350 people trained); the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (aiming to train 10,000 PhDs); the establishment of 37 national research and education networks in 37 countries to promote improved internet infrastructure for academic collaboration, research and teaching.

  • • The permanent secretariat building, an ultra-modern two-storey building situated in Accra, Ghana and generously funded by the Government of Ghana.

  • • Mobilisation of resources for the advancement of African higher education.

  • • AAU has been instrumental in building the capacity of member universities through its training programmes, including the Leadership Development Programme or LEDEV, and the Management Development Programme or MADEV.

  • • We have established partnerships over the last 50 years with key development partners including the European Union, the World Bank, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the African Capacity Building Foundation, the UK Department for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency, and the US Agency for International Development.

  • • The AAU has strengthened its relationship with the African Union Commission and regional higher education networks such as the Southern African Regional Universities Association, the Inter-University Council for East Africa, the Adventist University of West Africa, and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture.
UWN: It was stated during the conference that given Africa’s growing population, 40,000 to 50,000 universities are needed on the continent to meet demand. Against this backdrop, what do you think are the biggest responsibilities on the AAU as it moves into the second 50 years?

EE: Increasing access to African higher education through innovative methods such as open and distance learning, sharing infrastructure, academic mobility, credit transfers, harmonisation and curriculum reforms to match the needs of the continent.

UWN: It is estimated that there are about 2,000 higher education institutions in Africa. How does the AAU propose to increase membership of the association among these institutions?

EE: While the AAU’s membership is open to all African higher education institutions, not all of them qualify as there are specific criteria to be met by institutions to be eligible to join the association. Among these, applicants should be degree-awarding institutions. This has the effect of ruling out higher education institutions offering only diplomas and certificates. Furthermore, each applicant should also be accredited in its home country.

Going forward, as the AAU continues to grow, there is also the need for us to review the services being offered to our membership to ensure we improve the value offered to them.

Beyond these, the AAU has been undertaking a number of activities to increase its visibility and in turn attract qualified higher education institutions to join the association. These include marketing campaigns and showcasing the benefits of being an AAU member. Also, as a future structure, AAU is proposing to have regional offices to increase the association’s visibility and closeness to our member universities.

UWN: In his opening address, the President of Ghana Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo called on the AAU to record the history of higher education and its role in the development of Africa – is this a challenge the AAU intends to take up?

EE: Yes, the AAU has a plan in place to focus on archiving the full history of African higher education. We also plan to host renowned scholars at our secretariat who will assist in adding to the documentation of the history of African higher education. However, all these require some substantial financial and human resources.

UWN: Is there anything else you would like to add?

EE: I would like to use this platform to thank the Government of Ghana and all AAU members for their loyalty and continued support to the association.