Lessons emerge from first university partnership summit

A partnership project between the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Columbia University in the United States to support first-year students in developing their writing skills was described as an example of a success story of collaboration by Dr Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, at the first University Partnership Initiative (UPI) Summit.

Speaking at the summit, funded by the United States (US) State Department, and hosted by the University of Pretoria at its Future Africa Campus from 6 to 8 February 2023, Pandor said she was impressed with the results of the initiative in which more than 1,000 students based in Durban benefited from the link-up with academics in New York.

Pandor told delegates that the writing abilities and competencies of the first-year students had been notably strengthened as they have benefited from individualised peer consultations and mentorship, enhancing their self-efficacy and writing skills, and empowering them to become aware of and utilise knowledge in a higher education setting – and also to produce knowledge of their own.

In turn, she said, this has led to improved academic performance, showing that this is an international partnership project that is reflective of the objective of promoting inclusive development.

“I am thrilled at this partnership, which reflects the strong collaboration between South Africa and the United States of America. It’s a partnership that has been immensely valuable to young people in our country and America,” she said.

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.

Pandor encouraged partners based in Africa to ensure that they make full use of this opportunity and forge similar partnerships as they work towards fundamentally transforming higher education on the continent and become true participants in world knowledge creation.

A ‘revival of engagements’

Molly Phee, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, in her address, said that, under President Joe Biden, the US was set to revitalise its partnerships with the world. These sentiments resonated, too, with the summit’s theme: ‘Equitable and Sustainable Partnerships for Impact’.

She also repeated the words of Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, who visited South Africa six months ago, saying that the US and nations in Africa cannot achieve shared priorities without working together as equal partners.

Another aspect of the new US strategy towards Africa, said Phee, is that it recognises explicitly that America does not have a monopoly on knowledge.

“We don’t have a monopoly on talent …. [We will be enriched by] our partnerships with Africans, and that’s what we try and do every day and how we work together.”

Phee said that, decades ago, the US Agency for International Development provided scholarships and established university partnerships. But, in the following decades, some of that investment waned and diminished to be replaced by new types of partnerships, particularly in technological fields.

She said the state department plays catalyst in a revival of engagements, supporting the kind of university networks on the agenda at the summit. She added that partners in Africa, during previous discussions, have indicated that they wanted to be engaged with American universities.

But she said it is challenging to figure out how to make those partnerships happen because of the diversity and independence of American higher educational institutions.

“There isn’t an obvious roadmap to meet a partner in the US. And many of you in this room are engaged partly because of a personal relationship, right?

“You’ve travelled and studied at an American university, or an American leader came and lectured at [a university in Africa], or you had a friend that you met at a conference. How can we build from these informal ad hoc bonds to a more systematic approach, where more universities in Africa have more opportunities with more universities and colleges in the US?”

She said US institutions, through the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP), a network of 10 African universities, were already engaging Africa – and playing a catalytic role. Founded by Michigan State University (MSU) in 2016 in collaboration with colleagues in Africa, the AAP is a consortium of MSU, 10 leading African universities and a distinguished network of African research institutes.

Redefining partnership

Speaking via a virtual platform from the US, Dr Lisa Coleman, senior vice president, global inclusion and strategic innovation, at New York University (NYU), said her work revolves around bridging the idea of global partnerships, inclusion, and what that looks like across NYU.

“A lot of the times when we’re looking at partnerships … we’re not thinking about equitable partnerships. Many times, especially from the US or from a European perspective, it’s that idea of patronage or that idea of deficit. And, through our work, we moved away from that and [have been] thinking about what are the assets. What are the complementary ways we can work together?” she said.

In redefining partnerships, Coleman spoke of the need for reciprocal relationships, which must be reimagined. “Far too often, the US and Europe have been dominating. And what I mean by that is we’ve dominated grants, we’ve dominated the agenda, we’ve dominated the conversation.”

These partnerships must be reimagined as the university has embarked on a journey to develop a more globally-centred ecosystem built on the idea of partnership, she said.

Platform to share lessons

Explaining the origins of the partnership that culminated in the UPI, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP), Professor Tawana Kupe, said in his address that the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and 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 DHET investment in the US-SA Higher Education Network, or US-SA HEN, 12 projects were funded to the value of R44 million, involving 14 South African and 17 US universities. This resulted in a total of 38 exchanges transpiring between various institutions in both countries and benefited 102 doctoral students, of whom 79% are black South Africans.

In 2020, the US Embassy in Pretoria invested a further US$499,944 in the expansion of the network and charged the collaborating partners to grow further and strengthen this initiative.

There have been several highlights since the launch of the second phase of the US-SA HEN, which includes: leveraging existing partnerships and programmes to accelerate the process of establishing joint programmes, training educators from early childhood development centres on sensory gardens, helping children develop gross and fine motor skills, using interactive and hands-on exhibits and related programmes, for prioritising STEM learning to future fit the youth, while navigating rapidly advancing digital technologies.

In 2021, the US-SA HEN launched a virtual incubator USSAVI (United States-South Africa Virtual Incubator), that supported postgraduate students at institutions in the US and SA in the areas of entrepreneurial education and development in thematic areas such as food security and agriculture; sustainable urbanisation; mathematics and science; and education; among others.

“In celebrating these remarkable achievements, I am proud to be the host of the first UPI Summit, which showcases the remarkable achievements of the network, which demonstrates the impact of ‘Collaborations for Change’, which is geared towards strengthening student and staff exchanges between universities in South African and the US,” Kupe said.

He said such exchanges and collaborations had aided universities in developing new ways of responding to complex social, cultural, economic and environmental problems by adapting educational approaches and scholarship to address a changing world order.

The summit intends to provide a further platform to share the essential experiences and lessons from the US Department of State’s investments in collaborative projects between African and US higher education institutions while exploring approaches to strengthen, leverage and expand these partnerships to create a more sustainable impact on society in the post-COVID era.

The summit brought together academics and policymakers, drawing insights from collaborative US-Africa higher education project partners that have received support from the department of state.