Building capacity and quality through academic exchanges

Enhancing regional collaboration among universities through staff exchanges has the potential not only to improve academic mobility on the African continent but to enhance higher education quality and ensure rationalisation of existing capacity in Africa, according to Dr Moses Osiru, deputy executive secretary of the Uganda-based Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM, Secretariat.

RUFORUM, which evolved from a predecessor programme of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa programme known as the Forum on Agricultural Resource Husbandry, is currently involved in the enhancement of regional collaboration among universities through staff exchanges.

According to Osiru, the initial focus of the forum was to provide mission and peer support to African faculties of agriculture to strengthen research and postgraduate training. The programme ran for 10 years before coming to an end in 2002 with the creation of RUFORUM in 2004. Membership has since grown from 10 member universities to 12, and progressively to the current 66 member universities, with representation across all regions.

High-level skills

Upon the formation of RUFORUM members were concerned about how to ensure long-term capacity of universities to support high-level skills building for the continent. This meant building capacity at PhD level – beyond the focus of its predecessor.

“They also noted the importance of strengthening collaboration, rather than just competition among the network members,” said Osiru.

To that end, the Graduate Teaching Assistantship programme was instituted in 2014 which committed to train 325 PhDs. Under this scheme a university would identify strong programmes in its university and provide up to five tuition waivers for staff from RUFORUM member universities wishing to pursue PhDs.

RUFORUM continues to ensure short-term staff exchanges take place with academic staff from East Africa going to West Africa to teach for periods of two weeks to three months – and vice versa, said Osiru.

To date, over 70 PhDs have been placed at various universities across Africa. This adds to the over 2,000 postgraduate students trained through RUFORUM, including 356 PhD students.
The staff exchanges have led to increased understanding of local situations across Africa. They have also been important in creating networks of researchers that are now responding to calls for proposals from funders and undertaking innovative research. The end result is a stronger continent, along the lines of the vision of the African Union Agenda 2063, said Osiru.

According to Osiru, regional collaborations and integration are critical to higher education reform in Africa: “The staff exchanges were seen as important mechanisms to ensure increased staff capacity building in the region. As universities continue to mushroom, staffing challenges also increase.”

Benefits of staff exchanges

Regional collaboration and staff exchange initiatives have shown important benefits for universities. Firstly, staff retention rates improved as it was found that over 98% of staff remained in the region, and 94% remained in their own countries. Secondly, the sharing of teaching capacity among staff – in terms of a memorandum of understanding signed by 66 RUFORUM vice-chancellors – meant that university programmes were noticeably strengthened. Thirdly, costs were significantly reduced with training being conducted in nearby African countries.

“The programme provides for greater opportunity for postgraduate training in the African universities. It also strengthens internationalisation of programmes and reduces inbreeding,” Osiru told University World News.

Despite progress, challenges still remain. Most African universities have limited research and teaching capacity. Lack of funding and infrastructure are critical limitations to research.

There is also the challenge of losing staff, with many senior academics either leaving research positions to move into administration or out of the university system entirely. Qualified staff are also head-hunted by international institutions, such as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, and other advanced research centres, said Osiru.

Pedagogical training

In addition to staffing challenges, incentive mechanisms for publishing and community engagement are poor. There is a shortage of pedagogical training for new staff members entering the university system. Young academics are usually selected based on their performance at the undergraduate level and move into teaching without the benefit of teaching theory.

The demands of large classes leave little time for staff to pursue research and there is a general lack of strong quality assurance mechanisms.

One of the best ways to counter such challenges, Osiru argues, is through the creation of strong regional platforms through which to share regional and international best practices.

“Networks like RUFORUM offer an important platform to engage African vice-chancellors to support institutional transformation led from the inside,” he said. “Regional collaboration among RUFORUM member universities will ensure that universities are able to overcome common challenges through working together and increasing collaboration.”