Collaboration ‘key’ for African universities to share excellence

Continuing South African domination of higher education on continent could feed social instability, leading academic warns

March 11, 2021
Africa, universities on the African continent need greater connections, a summit panel hears
Source: iStock

A “radical” improvement in collaboration between African universities is needed to avoid South African domination of the continent’s higher education system and continuing inequality, an academic has argued.

Institutions needed to reimagine their role in African societies, but “no one university can shift the dial”, said ’Funmi Olonisakin, vice-principal (international) at King’s College London. And without better collaboration across the continent, South African universities would continue to be much more successful than their neighbours.

This would lead to continued migration southward and resulting social instability that manifested itself in “massive inequality across the board”, Professor Olonisakin told Times Higher Education’s Southern Africa Impact Forum, held virtually in partnership with the University of Pretoria.

“I worry that we might be contributing to the cycles of conflict and instability if we do not think about stability of good-quality education that is linked to excellent research [across Africa],” she said.

Professor Olonisakin pointed to United Nations forecasts that there will be more than 1 billion people under the age of 25 across Africa by 2050.  

“This is the scale of the challenge…The majority of institutions in Africa do not have the requisite capacity, whether [we are] talking about educators, PhD researchers [or] supervisors, to ensure students are connected to the wider society in a way that is relevant,” she said.

Research-intensive universities or “elite” institutions would have to play their part rather than focusing on proving their excellence and ignoring the vast majority of learners, Professor Olonisakin argued. It “will also mean collaboration across the entire continental landscape” through alliances such as the African Universities Research Alliance, as well as partnerships with government and industry.

Technology would play a big role, she continued. It “means a young person in Kigali can access something that has been produced in Pretoria, or someone in South Sudan accesses something that has been produced in Rwanda. That is why the model has to be radically different if we are going to change the dynamics of how we educate this 1 billion-plus young Africans...It requires our universities to not think of themselves as individually successful,” Professor Olonisakin said.

There will need to be more campuses “physically and virtually across the continent”, she said. “Without new thinking we will get the continent of Africa to a very dangerous place in the global ecosystem.”

Gerald Ouma, director of institutional planning at Pretoria, who spoke on the same panel, agreed that technology would need to play a big role in boosting education on the continent.

“It’s going to be a big challenge in terms of the infrastructure required not only within universities but across countries,” he said. Marginalised areas do not have as good internet as other regions, and businesses have limited incentives to improve connectivity.

“It calls for some kind of tripartite alliance, thinking about higher education as a system, coming together with industry and government,” he said. “[Universities] will need to be flexible and nimble.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Much of the origin of the universities in Europe happened under the guidance of the church (Paris, Oxford). The same might be appropriate for much of Africa, given the strength of the church in many countries and the opposition it offers to secular ambition as a governing motive in society. Of course, much of North Africa is Muslim, so to speak of Africa as a unity in this context is misleading.