AAU rebuilds its reputation

July 28, 2006

Donors are regaining confidence in the organisation reviving African universities. Karen MacGregor reports

The organisation at the forefront of the drive to revive Africa's universities is slowly regaining donor confidence after initially struggling to respond to concerns about weak organisation and dubious relevance.

The Swedish agency Sida is expected to resume funding the the Ghana-based Association of African Universities (AAU), and last week the UK announced a four-year grant of £3.5 million for a project to help African universities support development efforts, in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals and Commission for Africa proposals.

Sida has given funds to the AAU since 1993. Last year, it commissioned an assessment of the organisation, prompted by unease over the AAU's focus, programme coherence, education activities and staff, poor financial reporting and overdependence on donors, outmoded corporate governance and apathetic members.

This week, Johan Bergqvist, a Sida spokesman, said that the AAU had "complied with most of the issues raised by the institutional assessment".

An AAU application for further Sida funding became obsolete during the assessment process, but Mr Bergqvist said the agency planned to resume funding and had asked for an updated proposal "with a more holistic presentation of activities planned and performed by the AAU".

He added that Sida, which is jointly financing an AAU universities management programme with the Netherlands, had sent the 2005 AAU assessment's terms of reference to other donors for comments. "Many agencies welcomed this exercise as it should confirm the status of the reform activities performed by the new AAU management."

A new AAU constitution and strategic plan were endorsed by its four-yearly conference in Cape Town in January 2005, and the organisation emerged with a more coherent and weightier role.

Njabulo Ndebele, the AAU president and vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, told The Times Higher that the AAU's goals were to "enhance its visibility and its relevance to its membership, to strengthen and consolidate its organisational capacity and to achieve greater financial robustness".

The new emphasis is on co-ordinating activities through regional chapters such as the Southern African Regional Universities Association (Sarua), which is based in Pretoria.

Professor Ndebele said that strong regional organisations were "vital to achieving the AAU's objectives" and that Sarua had "pointed the way in effectively mobilising" higher education leaders to tackle Southern African Development Community goals.

Gareth Thomas, the UK Minister for International Development, said that the Department for International Development programme was "designed to act as a catalyst in the fight against poverty in Africa and to underpin the achievement of the millennium development goals".

The UK's £3.5 million will go towards the "Mobilising regional capacity for revitalising higher education in Africa" programme, which supports collaborative projects between the AAU, regional tertiary associations and national vice-chancellors' bodies.

Key partners are the African Union, the Africa Capacity Building Foundation, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the International Development Research Centre and Partnerships for Higher Education in Africa in the US.

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