AAU president: ‘It is time we moved from talking to walking’

Africa’s main challenge in the 21st century is the capacity to develop a higher education sector of continental relevance within a globally competitive world, against a backdrop of inadequate funding, low research output and visibility, as well as the lack of harmonisation within higher education systems, Professor Bakri Osman Saeed, the president of the Association of African Universities (AAU), has said in a speech to observe Africa Universities’ Day on 12 November.

Saeed said the creation of various platforms, including by the AAU, with most of the continent’s great brains, “should be utilised for key discussions and mapping out practical steps towards creating wealth and fortunes for our citizens”.

Africa Universities’ Day, which commemorates the establishment of the AAU in 1967, celebrates success stories of higher education across the continent, and highlights contributions to the continent’s development.

Saeed said the mission of the AAU was to enhance the quality and relevance of higher education in Africa and strengthen its contribution to the continent’s development by supporting its core functions as well as “facilitating, and fostering collaborations among African higher education institutions”.

He said the continent was bedevilled with a myriad of challenges in higher education delivery, including substantial and significantly important social, economic and stability dimensions, which must be addressed if the vision of transforming Africa through higher education is to be realised.

He added that, as the celebration focused on the theme ‘Open Science – Bringing Equity to Research and Publishing’, it was appropriate that discussions were aligned to addressing the bigger picture.

“I strongly believe that it is time we moved from talking to walking and to implementing the various recommendations that we come up with – at our departmental, institutional, and continental levels, year after year. The time to act is, indeed, now,” he said.

Research ‘a priority’

Saeed said, in line with the AAU’s mandate, higher education and research are priority areas of its 2020-25 Strategic Plan and called for sound strategic investments in higher education and research, which, he said, will lay the foundation for development of intellectual resources, competent workforces, visionary leaders, gender equality, human rights and democracy in countries on the continent.

He said that, through its programmes, the AAU has contributed to the achievements of international development agendas, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

In addition, it has also demonstrated outstanding support and advocacy for universities’ teaching, learning, research and community engagement activities, through the promotion of contact and cooperation among universities.

The AAU has also helped in the collation, classification and dissemination of information on higher education and research in Africa through empowering its members to address developmental challenges and studying and disseminating information on the needs of African universities as well as promoting linkages of African universities with the international higher education communities, among several others.

Stating that the AAU has done much, he admitted, however, that, “more concerted efforts are required in eliminating the challenges faced in reaching our broader vision”, and expressed the hope that, “with rich contributions from all experts”, the organisation will be able to move “towards the achievement of our collective goals”.

Saeed said the AAU remained committed to putting in even more efforts towards making greater positive impact on the continent and called on all stakeholders in the higher education arena, including members, governments, development partners, civil society organisations and international non-governmental organisations, among others, to continue to collaborate with the association to strengthen Africa’s higher education.

Open science

The Secretary-General of the AAU, Olusola Bandele Oyewole, said the new normal of COVID-19, which has enhanced the virtual world, has allowed academics and researchers from developing countries to benefit from the unprecedented collaboration and sharing of findings, largely through the adoption of open science methodologies in the research process.

Open science is the transparent and accessible knowledge that is shared and developed through collaborative networks.

Oyewole said, contrary to the fear and apprehension that was held by some against open science when it started, he was confident that many have now been convinced that it is the way to conduct research.

“Indeed, we all had first-hand experience about the benefit of open science when, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, both researchers and publishers in the scholarly sector made efforts to freely make available and in real-time, their COVID-related research, in a bid to help stem the rising tide of infections,” he added.

He said the Africa Research, Innovation & Development Network, or AFRID, had been set up to bring together African institutions and researchers willing to work together towards generating a critical mass of both expertise and knowledge to effectively support developmental initiatives of the continent, adding that, “to be able to work together, researchers must be willing to share data, methodologies and findings as well as involve others in their research processes, making sure the entire enterprise is very transparent”.

In addition, he said, the African continental publishing platform, one of the pillars of open science, is open access. The AAU, in collaboration with UbuntuNet Alliance (a regional research education network, or REN) is providing a cloud-based platform to host institutional journals.

“This will support all higher education institutions and research centres that do not have the capacity to host their journals, and those that currently only operate hard-copy forms of journals to access a more convenient and effective alternative,” Oyewole said, adding that “the platform will provide a one-stop shop of research from Africa, and about Africa”.