Co-creating strategies key to building equal partnerships

Ahead of a ground-breaking summit on partnerships at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus, the head of research capacity development at the University of Pretoria, Dr Rakeshnie Ramoutar-Prieschl, said international collaboration is increasingly viewed as the key to successful development research and to meet shared global challenges.

Collaboration may result in more visible profiles for partners and greater impact of their published research and innovative approaches as well as the more rapid circulation of ideas, said Ramoutar-Prieschl, the principal investigator for the United States-South Africa Higher Education Network (US-SA HEN).

But, there is always a cost in resources and time – and collaboration, alone, does not ensure equity in partnerships.

This article is published in partnership with the University of Pretoria to focus on the upcoming University Partnership Initiative Summit, which is funded by the United States State Department and will showcase the achievements of the US-SA Higher Education Network. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Co-creating strategies

Ramoutar-Prieschl told University World News that, in order to build equitable partnerships, there is a need to focus on co-creating and co-developing strategic priorities that are mutually beneficial, while also being open and honest about the role each collaborator can play, including the funder – in terms of supporting inclusive agenda-setting for building collaborative equal partnerships.

Speaking ahead of the first University Partnership Initiative Summit, funded by the US Department of State and hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) in South Africa, Ramoutar-Prieschl stressed that there must be a strong driver in both countries to ensure the success of a network.

This also means that there must be strong governmental and institutional support for the sustained activities of the network, which is framed by a structured governance structure.

Explaining what lessons have been learned from such collaboration, Ramoutar-Prieschl said key role-players and funders have become involved in the network to the point at which the activities supported by the network are part of the research agenda of the relevant stakeholders.

This, she said, has led to the combination of expertise and resources to answer bigger and more complex scientific questions which have not only expanded the breadth of the network, but also its impact.

The summit, themed ‘Equitable and Sustainable Partnerships for Impact’ takes place at UP’s Future Africa Campus from 6 to 8 February 2023 and will provide a platform to share experiences and lessons from the US Department of State’s investments in collaborative projects between institutions in the US and Africa.

“Through collaboration, we will be able to fully exploit our collective strengths, share learnings and maximise our limited resources,” Ramoutar-Prieschl added.

How to strengthen partnerships

Asked how institutions could strengthen partnerships, Ramoutar-Prieschl said UP is currently revitalising its approach to partnerships to ensure that it focuses on research excellence in areas of institutional research, strength and focus, are designed for relevance and impact, and are synergistic and complementary.

She said this has implications for how partners are selected, and also for how partnerships are managed as a collective (as opposed to being managed in a bilateral approach).

To achieve this, UP is currently developing its Africa Global University Project (AGUP), which has been described as a transformative internationalisation and global engagement initiative.

Under AGUP, the university will select 20 to 30 core universities (10-15 in Africa and 10-15 institutions in other parts of the world) to become the core partner universities with which the institution establishes long-term, expansive and synergistic partnerships.

The core partners would include those with whom strong relationships of mutual benefit already exist, and those with whom partnerships can help UP achieve its vision, including contributing to making a difference and having impact.

Within the specific thematic areas of collaboration which will be selected, the cross-cutting drivers of the AGUP will be enabling mobility and excellence, as well as promoting diversity.

Ramoutar-Prieschl said one of the desired outcomes of AGUP will be to develop young intellectual leaders with a global outlook through the activities of the project.

For Professor Tawana Kupe, the vice-chancellor of UP, the AGUP as an initiative will enable the university to develop and manage institutional-level strategic partnerships, specifically as they relate to the rest of the continent.

“These partnerships are intended to have pan-African impact, enhance the university reach and relevance, and facilitate innovation and thought leadership. This African-oriented but globally enabled approach to partnerships allows UP to be the ideal partner for the US-SA HEN,” he said.

Origins of the partnership

Professor Sunil Maharaj, the vice-principal of research, innovation and postgraduate education at UP, said the first such summit marks a key milestone in the relationship between those involved.

Through the US-SA HEN, a number of national, continental and US institutions of higher education have been collaborating with the objective of increasing the number of staff and student exchanges between the US, South Africa and other African countries.

The South African Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation provided seed funding to UP and its collaborating partners, the University of Venda and Rutgers University-Newark, in 2018, under the auspices of the University Capacity Development Programme.

From the initial investment in the US-SA HEN by the department, a total of 12 projects were funded, to the value of ZAR44 million (about US$2.5 million), involving 14 South African universities and 17 US universities. This resulted in a total of 38 exchanges between institutions in both countries and benefited 102 doctoral students, of which 79% are black South Africans.

In 2020, the United States Embassy in Pretoria invested a further US$500,000 in the expansion of the network and charged the collaborating partners with further growing and strengthening the initiative.

Summit agenda

Ramoutar-Prieschl calls the network a success story that can be described as “collaborations for change”.

So far, staff and student exchanges from partners and collaborations have aided universities to develop new ways of responding to complex social, cultural, economic and environmental problems by adapting educational approaches and scholarship, said Ramoutar-Prieschl.

Building on the previous US-SA HEN successes, the summit aims to promote cross-project learning and networking among the coordinators of projects across Africa, facilitate the sharing of outcomes and experiences by beneficiaries of the US-Africa higher education partnership projects; enhance awareness of the US-SA HEN and other established networks to foster wider and deeper collaboration and facilitate a policy dialogue between relevant stakeholders to support the reimagining of higher education partnerships in the post-COVID-19 era.

Frank Whitaker, the minister counsellor for public affairs at the US Embassy in Pretoria, said the summit is a springboard for demonstrating the impact of long-term partnerships for mutual benefit.

“As much as there is a focus on increasing the quality and quantity of well-rounded doctoral candidates, there is also a parallel focus on adapting traditional educational approaches and developing lasting solutions to some of the challenges that afflict our global society – all of which can be leveraged through mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships,” he said.