DAAD moves towards greater use of digital technology

In what could herald a new era in its engagements with foreign universities and scholars, the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD says it is exploring opportunities to make more use of virtual and digital technologies in its programme delivery. However, it has no plans to scale back its exchange and cooperation activities – or its longstanding commitment to the internationalisation of higher education.

The move towards greater emphasis on digital technologies is aimed at reducing physical travel and face-to-face encounters in situations where modern technology can be used with the same effect, according to the agency’s president, Joybrato Mukherjee, who assumed the presidency in January.

Speaking at a public lecture at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, on 26 February, Mukherjee said the deployment of digital technologies would enhance the sustainability of DAAD services and its cooperation programmes without compromising the “depth and range” of engagement, while making sure that only those functions that cannot be performed by virtual means are left to face-to-face encounters.

Mukherjee was part of the delegation of the federal president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was in Kenya on a state visit.

“We will explore the digital and virtual elements in university cooperation and see to what extent we can utilise the rapid development of these technologies in the full extent of our exchange programmes,” he told his audience.

Carbon footprint

Besides ensuring greater sustainability of DAAD’s activities, the reliance on digital technology will cut travel costs and lower the organisation’s carbon footprint.

DAAD is convinced that incorporation of more of the modern technologies in its exchange and cooperation work will lead to enhanced cooperation.

“Digitalisation has become an indispensable element of the future for the university and the science sector,” he said. “It creates new opportunities for global teaching and research, curriculum development, blended learning and for establishing networks.”

As part of the move, scholars will be assisted to access free digital libraries and online journals and be supported to improve quality of publications through the use of technologies, Mukherjee said.

Some physical mobility retained

However, during critical stages of joint research projects including the negotiation stage, physical mobility will still be funded, he said.

The agency is keen to ensure that the “intercultural experience” brought about by exchange visits is retained, partly informing the need to retain some physical aspects of the programmes.

In an email interview with University World News, Mukherjee said going forward the agency intended to establish a joint “research environment” between German scholars and their counterparts in Africa through “joint research projects and more institutional funding”.

“In addition to our core business of individual scholarships, we intend to focus more on establishing a joint research environment, through joint research projects and more institutional funding,” he said.

This will involve funding of more joint scientific research projects that will also expose African scholars to German experience and knowledge, he said.

In addition, greater attention will be directed to joint initiatives to complement the individual scholarships that DAAD has been issuing since 1925. And more efforts will be made to fund institutions under joint research initiatives, benefiting universities as well as individual researchers.

Centres of Excellence

The new president’s tenure will also see more emphasis on the Centres of Excellence already established by DAAD across Africa with funding from the country’s Federal Foreign Office.

Currently there are 10 such centres on the continent including two each in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya, and one in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Senegal and Niger.

Plans are underway to establish at least four more in the coming years, according to the president, with the aim being to improve the quality of education provided by African universities and to boost their research capability.

Collaborations to promote greater mutual understanding between German and African universities will also be promoted under the Africa-Germany Universities Cooperation framework.

Operating with a €640 million (US$728 million) annual budget, DAAD was thus far in no danger of seeing its budget reduced – as was the case with many international agencies doing non-profit work around the world. This is even as it was under threat of being overtaken by the newer Chinese Scholarship Council as the biggest grants organisation for international education, he said.

DAAD is largely financed through public bodies, among them the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union. The organisation receives its budget mostly from public funds but decides independently how much money it wants to spend on which programmes and grants, Mukherjee said.

“DAAD is not a government organisation; it does not act on behalf of the donors but as a membership organisation of German universities and student bodies, it supports and promotes internationalisation and education in the academic field.”

Shunning isolationism

He said DAAD would remain true to its nature, continuing to promote the internationalisation of education while shunning isolationism – trends that were exhibited in Brexit and international policies currently being pursued by the United States administration.

“DAAD’s long-term agenda will continue – we see no end to its international exchange programmes. We hold the view that the isolationism wave around the world is bad and dangerous for the world,” Mukherjee said.

He said DAAD would remain committed to its motto of “change by exchange”, aimed at promoting understanding between countries and individuals.

“The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union is only one example of the tendency of social groups and countries towards isolation. DAAD stands for the opposite, for communication and cooperation, and I hope we can continue to successfully make a difference not only in the field of higher education but in society as a whole,” he said.

Asked about his priorities for Africa as DAAD president, he said: “The European Union and the African Union are currently in the process of determining the way forward in joining forces to tackle contemporary continental and global challenges. In a similar way, the DAAD is in the process of finalising its new strategy for the next five years. This new strategy emphasises the holistic approach to contemporary global challenges and a new understanding of our neighbouring continents, among them Africa.

“My visit to Nairobi happens in the context of Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s state visit to Kenya, the first ever state visit of a German president to Kenya. Besides discussing Kenya’s economic prospects and the potential for economic collaboration as one objective of the state visit, education is an important topic in German-Kenyan relations, and German development work in Africa as a whole. Education is a way to tap into the most important resource of Kenya and the continent: the youth.”