Enhancing university partnerships in soft power drive

Japan is reaching out to build partnerships with African universities – a move seen as part of a broader strategy of higher education diplomacy or 'soft power' aimed at building regional alliances and partnerships to serve the country’s cultural and economic agendas.

African universities participating in the Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) and Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) projects supported by the World Bank were recently invited to attend a World Bank forum – “Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) and Partnerships of Japanese and African Universities” – in Tokyo, Japan, on 22 October.

According to the World Bank invitation, participants would be “learning from Japan’s experiences in promoting academic-private sector partnerships and pursuing discussions with Japanese organisations for possible collaboration in joint research and training of young researchers”.

The moves towards increased collaboration come against the backdrop of relatively limited partnerships between individual higher education institutions.

"Historically, some partnerships exist with Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ethiopian, South African, Zambian, Ugandan, Egyptian and Moroccan universities, but mostly in English language or English mixed-use countries. The country also has some agreements based on individual research projects," Professor Oussouby Sacko, the Mali-born president of Kyoto Seika University, told University World News.

"Several Japanese researchers work in Africa, [and] build personal research partnerships with institutions or universities or even with individuals. Those projects are mainly based on research partnerships in the field of anthropology, primatology, history, economy, agriculture, health and medicine, and some social studies," he said.

Increased research and teaching capacity

Sacko said African-Japanese university partnerships could give African universities insight into university as an “open and democratic learning space” and “how evaluation of education quality should be achieved and maintained". He said partnerships could also increase African universities’ research and teaching capacities and skills.

The World Bank’s Practice Manager for Eastern and Southern Africa in Education Global Practice, Sajitha Bashir, told University World News that Japanese faculties are “good at mentoring” and once the relationships are built, African universities could benefit through joint research, faculty and student exchange, curriculum development and commercialisation of research.

According to Bashir, Japan’s priority for international development includes health, disaster recovery and management and infrastructure.

Bashir said the World Bank would leverage two projects – the ACE and PASET projects – as a platform to develop Africa-Japan university partnerships.

"We are working to strengthen the partnerships between African and Japanese universities as well as exploring a potential collaboration with Japanese companies," she said.

"At least one MoU [memorandum of understanding] will be signed. The government of Japan, especially the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, are also very interested in partnerships.”

Soft power

According to a higher education expert Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, Japan also benefits from partnerships with African universities.

"These partnerships will enhance the university’s role as a cultural diplomacy tool to build Japan-Africa regional alliances and partnerships,” Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, told University World News.

With reference to soft power, Japan currently ranks at five in the world on Soft Power 30, a ranking of soft power based on "the quality of a country’s political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and a country’s digital engagement with the world".

Japan ranked 10th worldwide with reference to the education sub-index, which takes into account the number of universities a country has in global rankings, the number of international students it hosts and the number of science journal articles published.

Yoshiko Miura, senior deputy director for the technical and higher education team, Human Development Department, at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told University World News that with reference to African universities the agency’s focus is on “practical research skills through laboratory-based education, university-industry linkages and close communication and cooperation with Japanese universities".

Miura said the agency seeks to cooperate with African universities. One focus is the Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (PAU-STI) based at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya. Japan is the lead thematic partner of PAU-STI, which has facilitated the participation of 400 students from 40 African countries in PhD and MSc programmes.

Another focus is the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology (E-JUST). According to Satoshi Goto, vice-president for research at E-JUST, the institution is an expression of Japan’s “soft power in education, research and development, and collaboration”. “That power is invisible but very important to human development,” he is reported to have said earlier this year.

According to CNN Money’s Emerging Markets Editor John Defterios, "Japan prefers a soft, but influential touch and through its work being conducted by JICA, it has a clear line of sight on whether this programme of reforms will succeed.”

According to the 2018 Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) report, other educational initiatives being pursued by Japan include the African Business Education Initiative for Youth that offers opportunities for African students to study masters courses in Japanese universities and to experience internships at Japanese enterprises.

In addition, the Japan Africa Dream Scholarship Program provides scholarship support to African graduate students to undertake postgraduate studies in Japanese universities for sustainable development in Africa.