Successful start to major internationalisation project

The South Africa-Sweden University Forum or SASUF – a major internationalisation project aimed at strengthening education, research and innovation ties between the two countries – kicked off with a seminar hosted by the University of Pretoria in South Africa and some 30 satellite gatherings in 12 South African cities involving more than 1,000 local and 67 Swedish participants.

There are 30 universities* collaborating in SASUF, which will run for three years until 2020, along with embassies and government ministries, civil society groups and funding agencies from both countries.

Its US$2 million budget is jointly funded by the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), Swedish universities, and South Africa’s National Research Foundation and Department of Higher Education and Training.

The first seminars

During the three-year initiative, the Forum will organise three research and innovation weeks, in South Africa during 2018 and 2019 and in Sweden in 2020. The first seminars, contributing to the first research and innovation week, were held in mid-May.

The Forum’s extensive agenda has six research themes focusing on: climate change, natural resources and sustainability; transforming higher education curricula; social transformation through change; the burden of disease in Sweden and South Africa and its impacts on health systems; urbanisation and cities; and digital technologies, big data and cybersecurity.

At the launch seminars, parallels between Sweden and South Africa were highlighted during presentations made by higher education bodies from both countries. For instance, funding for higher education is a distinct challenge for both nations, despite their different social contexts.

The agenda focused on how to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030. Mutual efforts and collaboration are necessary, since global challenges require global solutions. The Forum stressed how perspectives from different cultures and countries enrich and enhance the quality of solutions to global challenges.

The purposes of the seminars were to connect researchers in seeking collaborative funding for projects, to internationalise research, to build research capacity, and to respond to government and international policy as a sector – drawing on sound, research-based evidence.

New optimism

Conference secretary Gustaf Cars, who is from Uppsala University’s international office and is also team leader for externally funded projects, told University World News: “The first South Africa-Sweden Research and Innovation Week exceeded our expectations, with more than 1,000 participating researchers, representatives of university management, ministries, industry and funding agencies taking part in seminars and workshops in 12 cities across South Africa.

“Activities during the week have provided a catalyst for intensified discussions on collaboration between the two countries and inspiration for addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

STINT Programme Director Hans Pohl told University World News that the launch seminar was “inspiring” and built expectations. The project offers seed funding to participants for collaboration.

Pohl hoped the research and innovation week would provide momentum for collaboration, and was keen to see how interest in the Swedish foundation’s mobility programme with South Africa’s National Research Foundation would develop. “We expect an increase in the number of good applications.”

Participants enthusiastic

Professor Moenieba Isaacs, academic coordinator and acting director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, was one of the organisers of a satellite seminar, held under the Forum theme of “Social Transformation through Change – Knowledge and social development strategies for society”.

The seminar, attended by some 50 participants, was framed around a documentary titled “Sarah Niemand and the Women of Buffeljagsbaai”, which contextualises the complexities of criminal livelihoods linked to perlemoen (abalone) poaching in a marginalised coastal community. There, women are faced daily with choices between feeding their families and-or garnering quick cash from poachers, and risking imprisonment.

The event was also attended by Sarah Niemand and some 10 others from Buffeljagsbaai, and was “really moving”, Isaacs told University World News. “It was great having them present, seeing the film through their eyes and in the discussion allowing them to respond to some of the questions.”

There was a powerful performance by women Eudrama students at the university, on how women are perceived in their productive roles – be it fishing, farming, domestic work, in politics, in the media and in academia. “Key discussion points were on the methodology of film and participatory nature of action research in presenting research on sensitive issues.”

Isaacs said she was interested in collaborating with colleagues on the topic of sustaining life below water and on land, through transdisciplinary action research. This would cover Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 on ‘life below water’ and sub-goal 14b on access to marine resources and markets for small-scale fishers, as well as SDG 15 on ‘life on land’. “Gender is also a key component of my work.”

Cecilia Christersson, vice-chancellor of Malmö University, wrote on her blog that seven researchers from Malmö had participated, visiting partner institution Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.

“I was surprised to hear the funding agencies strongly advocating social relevance in the research projects. We need to work in collaboration with research processes in the schools and develop methods that promote values and support active participation.

“Here is a coupling to Nelson Mandela’s words that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Of particular interest at the conference, said Christersson, was the linking of global SDGs to local research projects.

* From Sweden: Uppsala University (coordinator), Lund University, Göteborg University, University West, Malmö University, Karlstad University, and Umeå University.

From South Africa: Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Central University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University, North-West University, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, University of Fort Hare, University of Johannesburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Limpopo, University of Pretoria, University of South Africa, University of the Free State, University of the Western Cape, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Venda, University of Zululand, Tshwane University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology, and Walter Sisulu University.