Finding unique opportunities for partnerships across sub-Saharan Africa

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The right collaborations can challenge pre-conceived ideas and fast-track collaboration with industry

Universities recognise the importance of internationalism and how cross-border collaboration can be crucial for realising an institution’s mission. But is there a need for universities in the global north to look beyond the established elite in search of international partners?

Stephen Flint, associate vice-president for internationalisation at the University of Manchester, believes so. Professor Flint sees a growing demand for higher education and networks such as the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) as proof positive that UK institutions should make sub-Saharan Africa a priority in their internationalisation strategies. In doing so, however, academics may have to challenge pre-conceived ideas that work in the West or in Asia, because they may not be readily exportable.

This, says Professor Flint, is part what makes sub-Saharan Africa such an exciting proposition. “We have made so many mistakes,” he says. “We go in and say, ‘OK, let’s talk about water, and dams. Well, this is how we built dams in the Victorian age in Britain. Let’s just do the same in Africa.’ And, of course, it’s ridiculous. Actually, it’s great for academics to be stopped in their tracks. You can’t just do the same old thing that works in China or works in India or North America. Think again!”

The availability of materials, population density, issues of land ownership, a less-integrated relationship between academia and industry; these factors complicate large-scale infrastructure projects in the region. The latter is where institutions such as the University of Manchester can help. As Professor Flint notes, the UK higher education sector’s close links to business were forged over time, but having these in place can help partner universities in sub-Saharan Africa – and beyond – fast-track their own engagement with industry. “That’s another contribution we can make,” he says, “In countries like South Africa, there is progress there with some of the corporates. Multinational companies that are used to funding research or funding capacity building elsewhere in the world will be easier…the more homegrown industries? Look at the mining industry. There is a lot more work that needs doing around that.”

What is crucial is that partnerships between established universities in the global north and those in the global south are brokered on an equal footing. Professor Flint believes it is incumbent upon universities such as Manchester to share their knowledge and expertise to help partner institutions support their research. “We are looking at joint PhD programmes because, again, a proof of partnership is co-responsibility for things like grad students,” he says. UK Research and Innovation’s initiative with ARUA is “excellent” because it can force through change. “They are putting institutions like mine on the spot. They’re saying, ‘Y’know, we expect a lot of this cash to go right straight through you and into those other universities, who will administer it, oh, and by the way, Manchester, we’ll hold you responsible.’ That’s another interesting challenge, but I can see why they are doing it because, otherwise, nothing is going to change.”

Professor Flint is seeing a convergence of research and social responsibility when it comes to sub-Saharan collaborations. The University of Manchester’s research collaborations in sub-Saharan Africa would of course benefit Manchester, but such research, says Professor Flint, similarly elevates African higher education – and tackles social issue in Africa, too. Most pertinently, there are avenues of research that will only be possible if conducted in sub-Saharan Africa. “Four-star, highly cited papers will come out of research based in Africa because it couldn’t be done in the same way elsewhere,” he says.

This phenomenon will be especially pronounced in research about infrastructure and energy. “For colleagues who are working on energy problems, frontline stuff, Africa is a wonderful playground,” says Professor Flint. “They are starting almost from scratch, and the mix is going to be very different in Kenya to what it is in Ghana, to what it is in Namibia.” Across a continent of many different countries, cultures and political systems, with issues unique to each, new ideas are needed. New ways of thinking, too.

Stephen Flint was a participant in the UK Academic Salon 2019.

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