AAU secretary general asks HE to work on academic excellence

Just over a year ago, Professor Olusola Bandele Oyewole took over as the secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), based in Accra, Ghana.

Since taking office, he has been championing quality assurance and harmonisation in universities across the continent – something that he has focused on professionally for many years.

Among other positions, he served as a senior expert of quality assurance, mobility and scholarships at the department of human resources, science and technology of the African Union Commission in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, from 2009 to 2010. He was also the project officer of the World Bank’s ‘Quality Assurance for African Higher Education Systems’ at the AAU from 2006 to 2009.

Oyewole spoke to University World News about what he has been doing since taking office and what progress he has made in achieving the goals he set in 2021.

UWN: What are the key challenges in higher education in 2023? Do the various regions in Africa have different challenges?

OBO: I will say this: in 2023, education in Africa, generally speaking, appears to have come out from the effects of COVID-19. But, across the continent, we still have challenges with capacity-building, especially in the area of institutional capacity.

For this reason, we need to be addressing issues with digitalisation, teaching and learning. For many years, we kept saying that it was high time African institutions changed their teaching methods from being teacher-centred to becoming learner-centred, in order to encourage our young ones and people to be [much more] innovative, but we have not been able to do so.

We still need to promote capacity-building in areas of research as well as research collaboration among our universities. It is sad that collaboration among African universities remains a challenge for many institutions to deal with.

We also have problems promoting academic excellence and it is one of the things we've been talking about. Promoting academic excellence is not just asking institutions to improve their quality but we are also concerned about the quality of graduates coming out of our universities.

This is because the world we live in today needs young people with specific skills, who can meet the demands of the labour market. For this reason, institutions need to improve what they do to promote academic excellence.

UWN: How has political instability in various areas affected higher education?

OBO: We have not been able to overcome political instability in some countries which has restricted mobility, making it difficult for young people who want to attend school. Beyond political instability, there have also been cases of higher education instability in some countries as a result of strikes by staff unions in universities.

An example is Nigeria where, for eight months, some universities were closed and this has affected the country’s graduation rates as well as the future of the young people. For this reason, I can say political instability in Nigeria and Africa has affected educational mobility.

UWN: In some instances, parents are sending their children to study abroad. How does the AAU view mobility and internationalisation in the context of the brain drain challenge?

OBO: It is unfortunate that cases of instability, especially a lack of security, have created a problem on the continent – so much so, that young people prefer to go abroad for their education.

It is, however, noteworthy that one major development in Africa that has come up after COVID-19 is that some countries in the North appear to be encouraging mobility of labour in Africa to migrate over to their countries to meet their needs.

Between 2000 and now, Africa has lost a large percentage of its well-trained personnel, including doctors and engineers, many of whom are finding it easy to migrate to the North because they are offered better opportunities than they can find in their home countries.

UWN: It has been over a year since you took over as secretary general of the AAU. Can you share some high and low points?

OBO: I will say the high points include my joy that, within the past year, at the AAU, we have aggressively promoted capacity-building through the organisation of webinars. We have been able to have capacity-building in the area of teaching and learning, digitalisation and even research.

Another thing that makes me happy is that we have, since last year, seen the need to promote research in our institutions and I take a lot of pride in our leadership role in managing the African Centres of Excellence (ACE) project supported by the World Bank.

This is a project that is aggressively helping universities in Africa to build their capacity for research and their ability to collaborate with industry in the training of manpower required on the continent.

Within the past year, I have been happy that we’ve all been able to engage in advocating for curriculum reforms in Africa.

We have emphasised the need for higher education institutions in Africa to change their curricula from the one they inherited from their colonial masters to new curricula that meet the needs of Africa. We have been emphasising the need to promote skills and competencies for young graduates.

There has also been the advocacy for university or academia and industry collaboration, which is very important. We have also recognised that universities should no longer be the old type of universities and, for this reason, we are promoting the need for smart universities on the continent that can make use of technology to advance development.

We are networking with universities now so that there can be intra-universities collaboration in the area of research. We have not left out the diaspora. One of the things we have been advocating for in Africa is that not many universities have taken the need [seriously] to promote diaspora faculties, through which universities in Africa can engage our Africans outside the continent so that they can be virtual faculty members who can help to support students’ research and training, among others.

The low point is that our governments in Africa appear not to see the need to commit more funds to education, and it saddens me to see that some countries in Africa have had to close down universities because of political instability.

UWN: One of the areas that the AAU has talked about for a while is academic mobility and harmonisation. What progress has there been? Do you have any success stories to share?

OBO: We have been successful in promoting the project called ‘Harmonisation of Quality Assurance’ in Africa and, through this initiative, we are developing an institution called the Pan-African Quality Assurance Agency.

This is one of the activities we are engaged in and through which we hope to redefine the African higher education space. It will help us to break the colonial divide on our continent in terms of higher education.

It is also important to note that we have developed a strategy for the African Credit Transfer System, under which a student can earn a credit anywhere from any institution and that credit or knowledge can be transferred to another institution in a different part of the continent.

I think this may support mobility, but I also have to mention that, during the past two years, transnational education has not been successful as Africans continue to access education outside the continent.

UWN: Research funding is a problem for universities across Africa. What is the AAU doing to engage with governments? What have been the outcomes?

OBO: The major thing we can do about research funding is to advocate for better opportunities on the continent to have organisations and institutions that fund research.

I am not sure we’ve been successful in doing this. So, the other option is to encourage governments to see what they can do to put funds into research. Some governments have been doing this because they have seen that the ACE initiative model is helping to fill the gap.

Nigeria, for example, is also creating an internal Centre of Excellence, similar to the World Bank’s Centres of Excellence, and we hope that other countries will emulate this. We are also advocating that countries should create agencies that will be funded by the government through which scientists and researchers can access funds for their research.

UWN: You named a membership drive as one of your priorities for the year. There are still universities on the continent that are not members of the AAU. Why are they not joining?

OBO: I can only say that we have achieved some success since we recruited new members to join the AAU. However, some have not been able to join because of funding challenges and that is a major issue. Despite this, our services have been made available to all institutions in Africa.

UWN: How does the AAU engage vice-chancellors and presidents of universities across the continent?

OBO: We do so in various ways, and one of these is through organising webinars on higher education issues that are of interest and open to all institutions in Africa. Through this, we are able to address specific issues.

Other avenues through which we engage vice-chancellors are our bi-annual conferences. This year, we have a conference of vice-chancellors, directors and presidents and vice presidents in Africa’s higher institutions in Namibia in July. Through this, we will get all the vice-chancellors together to talk about issues of interest.

The theme is ‘Excellence in Higher Education’, and we feel that this is an opportunity for us to challenge universities through excellence. Another way we engage the university authorities is through projects that we get, for example through the World Bank Quality Assurance project.

We also have some projects with the International Development Research Centre and the personnel we use in these projects are researchers in Africa and based at institutions in Africa.

UWN: Over the past year, there have been some countries where the issue of academic freedom has come up. How do you see the AAU’s role in advocacy on this issue?

OBO: We have no power to enforce academic freedom. However, we educate people and governments generally on the need to promote academic freedom so that knowledge can be available.

There is no need to restrict academia in what they should investigate and we should recognise that one of the lessons of COVID-19 is that governments in Africa now find that we need to promote indigenous knowledge so that we can provide local solutions to our problems.

UWN: What is the relationship between the AAU and the African Union and how can this be used to improve Africa’s higher education?

OBO: Our relationship appears to be at a high point. The AAU is the African Union Commission’s lead agency on higher education. We maintain this relationship. We have regular consultations on issues of higher education with the African Union Commission.

UWN: How is the AAU contributing towards key development agendas such as the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

OBO: We do advocacy whenever we get the opportunity. Last year, I was at a conference on higher education in Barcelona, Spain, advocating on emerging issues in higher education in Africa like open science and digitalisation.

We are also intentionally talking about inter-regional collaboration and have also been at the forefront of promoting the African Union Commission’s Convention 2014 on the recognition of certificates and diplomas in universities across Africa.