Mobility scheme shows results, but challenges persist

An impressive 1,255 African beneficiaries, including 722 masters and 346 doctoral students and 187 staff, have gained from a continent-wide mobility scheme implemented over seven years as a joint initiative of the African Union and European Union. But challenges to the mobility of academic staff and students and the greater harmonisation of higher education systems persist on the continent, according to a recent report.

One of these challenges is the participation of women. According to the first progress report on the Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme produced by the chairperson of the Commission on Academic Mobility Scheme in Africa, only 232 out of 732 masters students participating in the mobility programme were women. At doctoral level, only 62 women participated compared to 284 men.

In total, 1,255 African individuals, including 722 masters and 346 doctoral students and 187 staff, benefited from the scheme from 2010-17. As part of the scheme, 29 partnerships were forged between 97 universities from 38 different countries. A total of €55 million (US$67 million) was spent on the initiative.

The scheme, a collaborative initiative under the joint African Union-European Union Strategy for Higher Education, is aimed at boosting the mobility of students and academic staff in support of “recognition of qualifications and cooperation between universities in Africa”.

French-speaking African countries were the most active in the initiative with Cameroon having the highest number taking part in the programme with 149 beneficiaries, followed by Madagascar with 105.

Although the proportion of female student participants was relatively low, women featured slightly more prominently at teaching staff level, with 57 women taking part in the scheme compared to 130 male lecturers.

But overall, only 28% (331 out of 1,255) of the participants were women, according to the 12-page report released on 29 March.

South Africa had the highest numbers of participating universities with nine universities, followed by Uganda and Morocco which had six each.

The first phase of the academic mobility scheme was implemented through three calls made between 2011 and 2013, with funding of €35 million from the EU. In the second phase, two calls were made in 2016 and 2017, with funding of €20 million from the EU to be granted for successful university partnerships.

According to the report, participant higher education institutions enjoyed enhanced capacity through the establishment of new agreements with various universities, increased research projects and publications, upgrading of qualifications for academic staff and improvement of international relations. Other achievements included enhanced proficiencies for academic mobility management, agreed curricula, and “mutual academic recognition mechanisms”.

The initiative strengthens the establishment of harmonised higher education systems at regional and continental levels, contributing to slowing down brain drain, while promoting “brain circulation within Africa”, noted the report.

The report identified challenges to the scheme as: limited credit-transfer and recognition of studies for short-term mobility due to variations in education systems; cumbersome and slow visa issuance procedures; and poor financial support by member states, among others.

It also expressed concern about over-dependence on external funding and low financial support from African governments and called for complementary initiatives to ensure the scheme is effectively implemented for quality assurance and harmonisation.

These include the establishment of a Continental Accreditation Agency for Higher Education as stipulated in Agenda 2063 to help operationalise the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Framework.

It also identified an urgent need to initiate the development of an African Continental Qualification Framework to facilitate the harmonisation of higher education, facilitate mutual recognition of qualifications across the continent, and enhance intra-Africa mobility of students and academics.

Such a framework, the commission noted, would also provide a platform for transferability of credits across various education systems, including at technical and vocational education and training level. According to the report, implementation of the Addis Convention on the recognition of academic qualifications, adopted in 2014, was necessary to strengthen the process of harmonisation.

However, since adoption only 17 member states of the African Union have signed it, with at least 10 ratifications being needed for the convention to come into force.

The report also called for early implementation of the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and the much-hyped African Passport, to provide conducive migration procedures.

“Adequate financing support from member states is also required to effectively implement the academic mobility scheme and other higher education initiatives,” it noted.