Self-reliance a key to successful academic partnerships

African universities should establish clear guidelines and timelines to ensure greater self-reliance when entering partnerships, especially with partners in the Global North, according to higher education and policy experts attending the inaugural Africa-China-World Bank Education Partnership Forum.

The forum, which is focused on higher education, science and technology, is being held in Beijing and Shanghai from 10-15 July and organised by the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the World Bank. A group of 80 African participants was expected to attend from higher education institutions and governments, including faculty members, vice-chancellors, and policy makers.

The forum is geared towards exposing the African delegation to state of the art higher education, science and technology in China and to helping build bridges between Africa and China at multiple levels, paving the road for more sustained partnerships.

Speaking to University World News ahead of the conference, experts said international partnerships could help African institutions of higher learning to achieve parity with international standards and become world class centres of education, but that this should be done carefully to ensure mutual benefits.

China has emerged as a prominent partner and donor to Africa, financing infrastructure development over the last two decades in 11 African countries.

Local capacity

According to Xiaoyan Liang, a senior education specialist with the World Bank, such projects need sufficient local capacity in research, technology and relevant skills in order to succeed.

“While the Sub-Saharan region has experienced remarkable growth over the last 15 years, the region continues to face critical challenges in maintaining the momentum,” Liang said. She said the continent was significantly behind others in higher order skills and research and development.

Hence, developing higher education and skills development partnerships was seen as an important strategy for establishing mutually beneficial pathways to the success of ongoing development projects tied to the region’s labour market and economies.

Liang praised the establishment of the World Bank-Africa-China education partnership and said China’s significant improvement in the global ranking of its higher education systems could also benefit Africa.

Beatrice Muganda, director of higher education for the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, said that partnerships should be shaped and driven by African interests.

“This means that the partnership agenda should be determined by Africans. African governments, business, industry and universities should play a key role in decisions made, guided by a framework of value addition and value for money,” said Muganda. Adding that the need for political will, as well as strategic investments to align higher education and economic development priorities, cannot be overemphasised.

Risk limitation

To limit any unforeseen risks, Muganda said honest and resolute efforts should be concentrated on learning from as well as upscaling, initiatives that are already making significant contributions in relevant areas. These initiatives include the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, and the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, or PASET.

According to Liang, although China was emerging as an important contributor to global research, development and technological advancement, there remained challenges of equity and quality assurance. “As China is emerging from these problems it is laying a path for other countries who can relate with this development journey,” said Liang.

She referred to the 2009 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation through which several initiatives have been supported to establish and strengthen knowledge-sharing between African and Chinese higher education institutions.

“Many of these initiatives have taken the form of transfer of advanced and applicable technologies, sharing experience in the development of science parks, and conducting joint research projects,” said Liang, adding that increased exchanges between faculty and students have helped strengthen friendships and partnerships between the two regions.

Brain drain

How do African universities and countries handle the challenges of brain drain when it comes to such partnerships?

According to Liang, international partnerships such as those promoted under the Africa Centers of Excellence project, can stem brain drain. Furthermore, global research reveals that investment in higher education which is linked to private sector demands and expectations can improve the local work environment and opportunities.

However, a conscious effort is needed so that the partnerships are mutually beneficial and build capacity in local institutions, their governance, technical expertise, faculty and students. Given the language and cultural differences, says Muganda, the focus should be on investing in people as well as institutions on the continent, rather than providing scholarships for students to study in China.

“We encourage our centres to enter partnerships with international institutions, be it in China or India or any European country, with clear expectations and consensus on deliverables and timeline,” said Liang. “The focus should always be on developing their instructional resources, bringing them on par with international standards, as well as achieving self-reliance over the long run.”

Liang said that in the 1980s and 1990s, China suffered a massive brain drain with its university students and faculties studying in the US and not returning to China. But as the overall macro conditions improved, China was able to reap the benefits of globalisation and is now able to attract back to China thousands of overseas scholars, researchers, professors and graduates.

Citing the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program as an example, Muganda said active links to diasporic networks were also enabling Africa to draw from its own expertise abroad, thus enabling students in African universities to access external expertise, ideas, emerging content and knowledge resources which had the effect of 'evening out' disparities in the quality of specific programmes.