A groundbreaking South-North research pact has taken off

When the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) was formed in March 2015, one of its objectives was to strengthen ‘South-South cooperation’ through a purposeful collaboration among its members.

The network of research universities was not averse to collaboration with institutions in the Global North. In seeking to work together, the network members were developing a new strategy for engaging with relevant institutions in Europe, North America and other places as one collective with similar interests.

This approach would permit them the opportunity to influence better the nature and scope of the relationships that they entered into as universities based in Africa.

There is no doubt that this approach has been very beneficial. The experience of universities in Africa working together to find solutions to the region’s development challenges has been very positively received by several institutions in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

UK Research and Innovation, or UKRI, found this initiative compelling and invested £20 million (about US$24.3 million) in the network’s Centres of Excellence in 2018. The 13 centres have subsequently functioned as the main instruments for pursuing ARUA’s objectives and programmes.

Also in October 2018, ARUA met with the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild) in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss the possibilities of collaboration to advance the goals and objectives of both networks.

ARUA recognised in that meeting several leading European universities that already had strong collaborations with many African universities, but were looking for an opportunity to broaden the scope of what they were doing in Africa and also have greater impact. That was how the common interests of ARUA and The Guild were discovered.

ARUA’s perspective

Very early in the life of ARUA, its vice-chancellors agreed that an area that should receive special attention was the growth of internationally acknowledged PhD programmes that would address the needs of Africa while making their universities globally competitive.

The link between good PhD programmes and enhanced research programmes was deemed to be strong. The vice-chancellors agreed to look seriously into the option of developing split-site PhD programmes that allowed students from ARUA universities to spend time at one another’s universities and, if possible and feasible, spend time at partner universities in the UK, Europe, North America, and other places.

During the early meetings with The Guild, ARUA emphasised two things it was most interested in: pursuing collaborative research projects over a long period and the development of split-site PhD programmes. While all parties agreed on the need for that, there was always the question of how those programmes could be funded.

The discussions of how to work together received a major impetus in 2017 when the European Union and the African Union agreed at their summit to make research and innovation a central part of their collaboration.

Since then, ARUA and The Guild have written several opinion pieces, concept notes and made public statements on how African universities could be strengthened to make them contribute significantly to the research and innovation agenda of the AU and EU.

In February 2020, the two wrote their first joint piece, ‘Recommendations for Strengthening African Research Universities’, in which they proposed, among other things, the creation of a substantial fund for research collaboration between African and European universities that would tackle urgent challenges faced by both continents. We also pushed for the development of accessible world-class research infrastructure in Africa.

Later, in July 2020, ARUA and The Guild wrote, ‘Confronting our Common Challenges: A new approach to strengthening Africa’s research, innovation and higher education capacity’, in which they raised the issue of developing Centres of Excellence (CoEs) by building on collaborations between European universities and the ARUA CoEs.

In November 2021, ARUA and The Guild held a joint conference on the future of higher education in Africa and issued a joint statement later in which they made specific calls for the development of Clusters of Excellence at African research universities.

This call informed another statement, ‘Developing a Stronger Research Ecosystem in Africa: Towards an enhanced role for universities through Clusters of Excellence’, signed and issued by all ARUA vice-chancellors in February 2022 ahead of the EU-AU Summit of that year held in Brussels.

It was directed at both African and European leaders, urging them to support the concept of Clusters of Excellence.

From vision to action

In November 2022, the annual meeting of ARUA vice-chancellors took place at the University of Cape Town and they invited the rectors and the presidents of The Guild to join them.

At the meeting, the academic leaders re-affirmed their commitment to collaboration and the development of Clusters of Excellence that brought together ARUA and The Guild universities to work in areas to be agreed upon, but falling mainly within the four priority thematic areas of the AU-EU Innovation Agenda as identified by ministers responsible for research, technology and innovation in Africa and Europe.

These were, namely, a focus on a green transition, innovation and technology, public health, and capacities for science and higher education.

It was agreed to use the period between the November meeting and the next meeting of The Guild rectors and presidents scheduled for 8 June 2023, to translate the vision into action through a series of bottom-up activities.

It was agreed that the process must be as participatory as possible. ARUA vice-chancellors stressed the need for capacity-building and the enhancement of research infrastructure at African universities as essential components of cluster activities. They also reiterated the fact that they will rely mainly on their existing Centres of Excellence in the development of the new and broader Clusters of Excellence.

A good illustration of the expectation of the ARUA vice-chancellors was that the development of doctoral academies would emerge to facilitate split-site PhD programmes and provide support to early-career researchers.

It was this expectation that led ARUA to embark on the mission of reviewing PhD programmes and agreeing to develop collaborative PhD programmes at its Centres of Excellence.

Arriving at the Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence

ARUA has been very happy that most of its Centres of Excellence showed interest in the development of Clusters of Excellence, in partnership with The Guild universities, and went ahead to identify potential collaborators.

They understood the point that repeatedly came up at meetings of deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs) of research that ARUA had a set of values that needed to be protected in all collaborations.

ARUA was interested in equitable research partnerships in which every activity was co-created and jointly managed. The researchers were not waiting for their partners to take the lead and for them to follow.

Indeed, the ARUA units initiated a majority of the 22 proposals considered by the ARUA DVCs and The Guild vice-rectors and vice president for recommendation to the vice-chancellors, rectors and presidents.

It was also understood that ARUA universities were not looking for hand-outs but were willing to commit their own resources to the partnership, just like their partners from The Guild. It is significant that, for most of the proposals that were received after several iterations, most of the universities on both sides made substantial commitments.

When the ARUA vice-chancellors met in Brussels on 8 June with their colleagues from The Guild, it was a meeting that reflected shared values and ideals. Both sides recognised that there was a lot at stake for them.

They were embarking on a joint mission that should lead to mutual benefit. Their success would come from a new capacity to do better several things they had not been successful previously. That new capacity had its source in their numbers and different rich experiences that would make collaboration a lot more promising and, hence, easier to fund. All the proposals reflected an appreciation of good science and rigour.

The vice-chancellors and rectors had no difficulty accepting 17 proposals (later increased to 20) to be developed initially. There were hardly any disagreements as they found the quality and the commitments made by the universities generally high and, therefore, acceptable. The approved proposals reflected a good geographical spread of the clusters, including in Africa.

One of the most interesting things about the proposals received and approved was the willingness of the researchers to work with others outside of their immediate networks.

There were, therefore, many researchers from non-ARUA universities that have become involved in the Clusters of Excellence.

It was this observation that made it easy for the Brussels summit to settle on the name ‘Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence’ followed by the sub-title ‘Led by ARUA and The Guild’. The Clusters are certainly meant to be open to all researchers who are interested and capable.

In sum, the approach to developing the Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence has been participatory and based on shared interests and values. The expected benefits will be shared equally, on the premise of mutual trust and shared ideals. It is also understood that the work is only now beginning.

Professor Ernest Aryeetey is the secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance.