Africa-Europe collaboration: A new era in research excellence

The recent launch of 20 joint Clusters of Research Excellence (CoREs) by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild) marks by far the largest and most important research collaboration agreement ever with African universities.

It is important to note that the ARUA-The Guild CoREs are not agreements between countries, but, instead, between universities in Africa and Europe.

These CoREs have been initiated and developed in relation to the ambitions of the African Union and European Union to enhance the role and importance of research, higher education and innovation in their formal collaboration agreement.

This culminated in the joint AU-EU Innovation Agenda, or IA, as part of the overall new collaboration agreement, signed in February 2022 at the sixth AU-EU summit and referred to as ‘A Joint Vision for 2030’.

At the summit a joint African-European Global Gateway Investment Package of €150 billion (US$158 billion) was announced to support ‘A Joint Vision for 2030’ and the Innovation Agenda.

One of the aims of the new collaboration agreement is to support Africa in achieving “a strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation”, focusing on sustainable investments in key areas, ranging from infrastructure and health to education and the environment.

The CoREs have the potential to play a key role in the realisation of the ambitious aims of the new AU-EU collaboration agreement.

How did this unique policy innovation at the continental and institutional level come about?

Background: Development of new ideas

The relationship between the AU and the EU has traditionally been dominated by development aid principles and programmes.

In this relationship, higher education was only of marginal interest, while research and innovation were generally neglected. This implied, in practice, that the investments by the EU in Africa were mainly poverty reduction oriented, with little structured investments aimed at reducing the inequalities, for example, by strengthening the institutional foundations of African countries.

This changed with the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as the president of the European Commission in 2019. Her first international visit as president was to the AU in Addis Ababa, where it was announced that the EU and the AU aimed for a stronger, more ambitious strategic partnership, instead of a ‘relationship based on development aid’.

This created a window of opportunities for significantly enhancing the role of higher education, research and innovation in the new AU-EU agreement, for which the negotiations had started in 2018.

In this process there was a need for new ideas about ways in which the science relationship between Africa and Europe could be strengthened. Stakeholders on both continents were encouraged to contribute to the process.

While various traditional stakeholders were involved in the process, a strategic collaboration between two university alliances (ARUA and The Guild) played a pivotal role in creating acceptance for the starting point that universities should play a central role in the new science relationship between the AU and EU.

History of the ARUA-The Guild partnership

The collaboration between ARUA and The Guild is rooted in the research work on higher education and science undertaken in South Africa since 1995.

The late former President Nelson Mandela established the National Commission on Higher Education, which provided a policy framework for post-apartheid South Africa and, given the task at hand, the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) was established. An important aim of this research work was to produce empirical data on the factors affecting the knowledge production function and practice of leading universities.

While the initial focus was on South Africa, after 2006, the research was extended to universities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Key to this was the research that led to the 2011 publication of Universities and Economic Development in Africa (which has since been translated into Mandarin 2019 and is one of the most cited academic publications on higher education in Africa), and, in 2007, the establishment of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) project. Both CHET and HERANA were led by Nico Cloete.

The research and collaboration networks developed during this process were supported by a range of funders convened by the United States-based Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, or PHEA, at a meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in January 2007.

The approach adopted by the HERANA project broke the development aid mould in several ways. It brought together a group of funders to support a project that combined a number of activities aimed at strengthening capacity in higher education in Africa; it sought to study a selected group of flagship universities across Africa rather than just one university or several universities in one country; it aimed to collect and share empirical data on the research performance of the universities; and it adopted a network approach, not only connecting the universities to one another but also to expertise from the continent and globally.

In the latter, the collaboration between us (Cloete and Maassen) formed not only an important pillar under the HERANA project, but also allowed for the initial development of ideas that later contributed to the core of the ARUA-The Guild partnership.

The HERANA project showed that the research productivity of selected African universities has gradually increased after the turn of the century. However, structural economic, organisational, political and academic challenges form a major barrier for the further development of the research capacity and productivity of African universities.

For this to be realised, new approaches and ideas are necessary. One major innovative step forward concerns the establishment of ARUA as the first research university alliance in Africa, which was inspired by the HERANA project and based on a research-based paper we (Cloete and Maassen) produced.

North-South collaboration

The establishment of ARUA in 2015 was part of a global trend of setting up regional university alliances, as was the establishment of The Guild in Europe in 2016. Both alliances aimed at promoting academic collaboration and influencing political agendas, and both used the first years of their existence for identifying the key policy areas they wanted to impact.

For The Guild, one of the potential areas of interest was North-South collaboration. At the initiative of the then vice-rector Åse Gornitzka of the University of Oslo (UiO), The Guild in January 2018 organised a meeting at UiO for discussing the idea of establishing a North-South working group.

We (Cloete and Maassen) participated in this meeting and argued for a focus on collaboration with African universities, instead of a more general ‘North-South orientation’ of The Guild. Our arguments and suggestions were accepted, and The Guild, in spring, 2018, established a North-South working group with a focus on collaboration with African universities.

As a follow-up to this basic decision, The Guild also invited, in spring 2018, the establishment of a collaboration agreement. After several digital meetings, the two alliances agreed on a formal partnership dedicated especially to the enhancement of African–European university research collaborations.

In October 2018, The Guild and ARUA invited 10 representatives from three EU directorates-general (DGs), (which operate like an EU ministry), to a seminar in Brussels, where Maassen presented key data on the research capacity and productivity of African universities provided by HERANA and the Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University (SciSTIP) and argued for putting research collaboration (and capacity enhancement) more firmly on the EU-AU collaboration agenda.

Furthermore, ARUA was represented by its secretary general, Ernest Aryeetey, and The Guild by its secretary general, Jan Palmowski, while the former vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Ihron Rensburg, also participated in the seminar.

Position papers capture ‘good ideas’

At the seminar was a statement from the EU bureaucrats indicating that it was difficult for them to convince their colleagues that research and higher education should become more central in the EU-AU collaboration.

They claimed to lack good ideas, and encouraged ARUA and The Guild to develop, publish and promote new ideas for African-European university collaboration.

ARUA and The Guild took the invitation seriously and developed, throughout 2019, the following papers, which were published in 2020:

• ARUA-The Guild position paper: ‘Recommendations for Strengthening African Research Universities’;

• ARUA-The Guild statement: ‘Leading African and European universities issue joint call for investment in African research universities’; and

• The Guild position paper written by Peter Maassen with input from Nico Cloete: ‘Developing equal, mutually beneficial partnerships with African universities: Recommendations for a new European collaboration strategy’.

Support from university leaders

Furthermore, in February 2019, an important meeting took place in Oslo between us (Cloete and Maassen), the UiO rectorate (Svein Stølen and Åse Gornitzka) and Adam Habib (then the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and, since 2021, the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). At this meeting, the joint interest of European and African university leaders to support the further development and implementation of the ARUA-The Guild ideas, as presented in the joint papers, was confirmed publicly.

The ARUA-The Guild papers were welcomed by the European Commission and its three involved Directorates-General, the EU equivalent of a ministry, namely the IntPA, responsible for international partnerships; RTD, focusing on research and innovation; and EAC, tasked with education, youth, sport and culture, including the Erasmus+ programme.

A plan was made to attract attention to the ideas and recommendations presented in the ARUA-The Guild papers, among other things, through a major international conference, planned for April 2020.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic made the implementation of the original plan impossible, and, therefore, a new dissemination strategy was developed relying on digital interactions. In the period March 2020 to December 2021, dozens of online meetings took place at the initiative of The Guild and ARUA.

The core group from both alliances participating in all meetings consisted of Jan Palmowski, Ernest Aryeetey, Peter Maassen and Laura Royer, a senior policy officer at The Guild.

The meetings included various interactions with the three involved EU DGs (political and administrative leadership and sector specialists); various EU-related committees and working groups; several African politicians and science experts; the German Rectors’ Conference and many national university associations from Europe; as well as national development aid agencies.

Stepping into the ‘science vacuum’

During these meetings, it became clear that the ideas from ARUA and The Guild were contributing to the attempt by the AU and EU to ‘fill a science vacuum’ in their relationship.

In this, the ARUA-The Guild partnership was in line with the ambitions of the current political leadership of the EU (the EU Commission under the leadership of Von der Leyen) to drastically modernise the relationship between Africa and Europe, and move from a relationship based on development aid, to a mutually beneficial strategic partnership.

The main message by the EU to The Guild and ARUA, expressed in the online meetings, was that the ideas were potentially relevant, but still rather abstract.

The suggestion was to develop more concrete recommendations concerning African-European university collaboration and research capacity-building at African universities. Consequently, in July 2020, ARUA and The Guild published a new position paper entitled, ‘Confronting our Common Challenges: A new approach to strengthening Africa’s research, innovation and higher education capacity’.

In this paper, key problem areas in African higher education and research were identified, and concrete proposals for investments that would contribute to addressing these problems in an integrated way were presented. Among other things, in this paper, the notion of ‘Clusters of Excellence’ was introduced.

This paper and the ideas it presented played a central role in the further interactions between ARUA-The Guild and the representatives of the three involved EU DGs, and in the development by ARUA and The Guild of the ‘Clusters of Research Excellence’ initiative.

One of the new AU-EU investments in this period was the ARISE or African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence Pilot Programme aimed at identifying and supporting highly talented early-career researchers from Africa.

Other signs that the ARUA-The Guild ideas were gradually gaining impact were the announcement of the new Erasmus+ budget, the introduction of the Africa Initiative in the new framework research funding programme (HORIZON Europe); and opening up the European Universities Initiative for inclusion of African universities as associate partners.

Excellence clusters

The overall impact of The Guild-ARUA partnership was in the end clearly visible in the text of the joint AU-EU Innovation Agenda (IA), launched in February 2022.

This IA was welcomed as a game changer in global science relationships in its emphasis on multilateral, equal scientific agreements and collaborations.

ARUA and The Guild have used the IA for initiating and organising a further impetus for the development of joint ARUA-The Guild CoREs.

The two alliances developed guidelines for the development of these clusters, such as the involvement in each CoRE of at least three universities from three different countries per continent; each CoRE should have a European and an African lead university, with the leadership of both universities providing funding for the CoREs; each CoRE proposal should be developed by senior academics from the involved universities; and the commitment of all member universities of each CoRE to contribute to the reduction of the economic, infrastructural, career opportunity inequalities among the participating universities.

The road map for the development of the joint ARUA-The Guild CoREs contained various activities, deadlines for submitting draft CoRE proposals, and meetings.

University leaders and politicians have to work together

In the period since the summer of 2022, two meetings stand out. The first was in Cape Town, in November, where the leaders of participating ARUA and The Guild universities met to assess the progress in the development of the CoREs until then. This was reported in University World News on 17 November 2022.

At the meeting they agreed, among other things, to select, by the summer of 2023, a first set of CoREs that would fulfil the basic academic and other conditions agreed upon earlier.

The second meeting was in June 2023 in Brussels, where ARUA and The Guild university leaders considered proposals and selected 17 CoREs. This first set of CoREs fulfilled all basic conditions, and each of them was regarded to have the potential of developing into strong, equal scientific partnerships allowing all European and African universities to contribute to the global forefront of knowledge production in the academic area in question.

Furthermore, each of the selected CoREs had a convincing plan for reducing inequalities, for doctoral education collaboration and for linking their CoRE activities to relevant local contexts and needs.

In September 2023, the ARUA-The Guild leadership selected another three CoREs, implying that the partnership currently actively supports 20 CoREs involving more than 250 researchers from over 100 universities across 60 countries from both continents.

Within the new framework, conditions offered by the AU-EU Innovation Agenda, the ARUA-The Guild partnership provides a striking example of how global university collaborations can move away from traditional foundations and understandings.

The ideas developed in the HERANA project form an important contribution to the development of the ARUA-The Guild CoREs as an example of an alternative, more equal and strategic form of collaboration between universities in the Global North and the Global South.

For realising the potential of these new forms of university collaboration, it is important that continental and national public authorities in Africa and Europe recognise this potential and adapt their policies and funding programmes adequately.

Only by linking the emerging coalitions of university leaders and senior scientists, as in the ARUA-The Guild CoREs, effectively to political agendas can we expect the promises of multilateral scientific relations, as promoted by the AU-EU Innovation Agenda, to be realised.

Nico Cloete is professor of higher education, SciSTIP (Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy), Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is also a member of the University World News – Africa board. Peter Maassen is professor in the department of education at the faculty of educational sciences, University of Oslo, Norway.