A short (hi)story of University World News – Africa

A fortunate confluence of events gave rise in 2008 to University World News – Africa, an online publication with an international perspective featuring news and analysis of African higher education. The aim was to generate and disseminate reliable information about a rapidly expanding post-secondary sector, among Africans and between Africa and the world.

The confluence was between University World News or UWN, which was being founded during 2007 by an international network of specialist education journalists* with big dreams but small wallets, and another new initiative HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – which was created, among other things, to produce data and analysis of flagship universities in eight African countries.

The context was the internationalisation of higher education, which was forging a global sector in which every region was engaging in multiple ways. It had become necessary for university academics and professionals to follow news and developments in countries other than their own, regionally and globally.

At its core, UWN’s outlook is international – not the narrow ideas of student mobility or research collaboration or rankings, but a belief in global interdependence and collaboration, underpinned by a philosophy of humanism.

In Africa, universities and colleges were rapidly expanding as democracy took root and economies took off, driving an urgent need for more and higher-level skills – to provide leadership and professionals as well as to teach the continent’s growing student population and conduct the research needed to drive development.

A founding partnership

Out of the blue came a phone call from Professor Nico Cloete, director of the then Centre for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa, who was conceptualising the HERANA project and its implementation. He was clear about the ‘R’ for research but less so about the ‘A’ for advocacy. Did I have any ideas?

At the time for journalists, the word ‘advocacy’ evoked problems, as the independent media saw itself as providing some semblance of balance and ‘truth’, rather than advocating a point of view or advocating for an interested party. This view of independence no longer holds true across all journalism and media.

But I did have some thoughts about dissemination of research results, which was what HERANA was really looking for. I told Cloete about the soon-to-be launched University World News, created by some two dozen people, mostly journalists, mostly in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, Australasia and North America.

The journalists knew – or knew of – each other as former correspondents of Times Higher Education, where I had for some years been foreign editor. This network of journalists met in London in July 2007 and decided to launch a global niched publication, as a response to higher education internationalisation. Growth of the internet and World Wide Web were enabling (low cost) digital publication and distribution.

At first, Cloete and I had no clue what the other was talking about. But we met in Cape Town in late 2007 and brainstormed the creation of an African version of UWN that would report on African higher education for both publications.

This would be done in partnership with HERANA, which contributed funding. At that stage the HERANA project was funded by three major American foundations – Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller. Dr John Butler-Adam, South African program officer for the Ford Foundation at the time – and later editor in chief of the South African Journal of Science – said “use some of the Advocacy funds”.

Ford funded UWN Africa for many years, followed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, working with Program Officer for Higher Education and Research in Africa Claudia Frittelli. UWN Africa had editorial independence, prolifically producing news and analysis on higher education – including the many and rich results of HERANA research

UWN Global was launched in October 2007, with the founding co-editors being Australian journalist Geoff Maslen and myself in South Africa. While University World News is based in London, rather remarkably and unusually, its IT and editorial production have always been in South Africa.

UWN Africa was launched at the end of March 2008, as a fortnightly publication (it became weekly at the end of March 2020) reporting on higher education news, issues and developments across Africa and also including important stories published in the global edition. It is sent to readers in – or interested in – Africa, with many of its articles also published in UWN Global.

The two publications have an interesting relationship, with separate governance but strong editorial links and dependencies. UWN Global is a company registered in London, owned by shareholder journalists and others, now also including ‘white knight’ investor Smuts Beyers. Its managing editor is London journalist Brendan O’Malley, former international editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

UWN Africa is a not-for-profit company registered in South Africa and overseen by a board that includes leading African professors – Chair Nico Cloete, Teboho Moja, Goolam Mohamedbhai, Ernest Aryeetey and Bhekinkosi Moyo – as well as Bruno van Dyk, UWN Africa Director Johan Naude, former editor Sharon Dell, current Editor Cornia Pretorius, and myself.

Pretorius is an award-winning education journalist. She is also the first editor of UWN to be both a journalist and an academic – in journalism at North-West University in South Africa. We are excited to see where this combination takes UWN Africa. Special thanks go to Naomi Davidson, UWN Africa's administrative rock and finance director from the start, now retiring.

Aims and values

Given financial pressures on the media worldwide brought about by social media, the shift online and collapse of media advertising revenues, UWN Africa’s survival has depended on the generous funding from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This has enabled UWN to be open access, ensuring that readers in the developing and developed world enjoy equal access to UWN resources. This is important to us.

Accompanying Africa’s democratic and economic advances of the late 20th century has been a huge expansion of public and private universities, a research awakening and a growing understanding by governments of higher education’s key role in development.

Several African countries have put knowledge, innovation and higher education more at the centre of development strategies. At the continental level, the African Union Commission has foregrounded higher education, research and harmonisation, and the Association of African Universities, World Bank and others have launched major support initiatives such as the latter’s African Centres of Excellence.

As I wrote in a 10th anniversary story on 30 March 2018: “UWN Africa tackles three issues related to the continent’s development, namely the needs for: improved journalism; reporting that busts negative myths about African realities and potentials; and reporting that reaches a wide audience and improves communication and understanding of Africa across the continent and internationally.” In Africa especially, universities lacked intelligence about systems and institutions around the world and even on the continent.

A core UWN journalistic value is that news and analysis should be written by journalists who are based in the countries being written about, who understand the context and are invested, rather than by ‘helicopter’ writers who fly in and report from very different perspectives. Today UWN comprises a network of more than six dozen education journalists – 28 of them in Africa – based in 50 countries, with representation in all regions.

Of course, there is also great value to be had in outside perspectives and international comparisons, and these are also strong features of UWN Global and Africa.

UWN Africa aims to generate greater news coverage and analysis of universities in Africa, and to improve communication and information-sharing between people working or interested in higher education on the continent – university leaders and managers, academics, policy-makers, higher education researchers, institutes and groups such as university associations, and international organisations interested in African education.

The most significant articles are also published in UWN Global, as mentioned, improving international coverage of African higher education while also encouraging ‘South-South’ sharing of news and information between marginalised regions. I guess it can be (immodestly) said that UWN – Africa and Global – has helped to put African higher education on the map.

*These are journalists in the international network who have been involved in the governance of University World News (Global) and-or supported the publication as shareholders: Philip Fine (Canada), Michael Gardner (Germany), John Gerritsen (New Zealand), Liz Heron (Hong Kong, now United Kingdom), Nick Holdsworth (United Kingdom and Russia), Tim Homfray (United Kingdom), Charles Jannuzi (Japan, since withdrawn), David Jobbins (United Kingdom), Ard Jongsma (Denmark), Karen MacGregor (South Africa), Makki Marseilles (Greece), Jane Marshall (France), Geoff Maslen (Australia), Jan Petter Myklebust (Norway), Keith Nuthall (Canada), Brendan O’Malley (United Kingdom), Alan Osborn (Belgium), William Saunderson-Meyer (South Africa), Yojana Sharma (United Kingdom), Diane Spencer (United Kingdom), John Walshe (Ireland), Rebecca Warden (Spain) and Helen Womack (then Russia, now Hungary).