‘Harvard of Africa’ now ‘not an academic institution’

Shift in focus at transcontinental African Leadership University prompts some staff to quit

July 3, 2018
Fred Swaniker, African Leadership University
ALU founder Fred Swaniker

It was billed, perhaps prematurely, as the “Harvard of Africa”, with a vision of 25 campuses across the continent. Now, however, the African Leadership University has decided that it is “not an academic institution” – prompting some staff to quit.

The institution, founded in 2013, secured tens of millions of dollars of Silicon Valley investment and aimed to train 3 million entrepreneurial and ethical graduates by 2060. The first campus, in Mauritius, which offers degrees accredited by Glasgow Caledonian University, was set up in 2015, and a second in Rwanda was opened in 2017. Within four years, the university had almost 800 students enrolled.

Speaking to Times Higher Education last year, ALU founder Fred Swaniker, a Ghanaian educationalist and entrepreneur, said that he hoped that the institution would eventually be recognised as one of the world’s top universities and appealed for researchers to join it.

However, in a recent email to staff, Mr Swaniker says that the leadership of the organisation had been holding discussions about its future over the past 14 months.

“The strategic choice we ultimately made is clear: we will not be building traditional small-scale universities. In fact, we are a disruptive leadership institution, not an academic institution,” Mr Swaniker writes.

Mr Swaniker says that he is “mindful of the fact that some of the changes we are going through right now are hard” but adds that “time for the debate about the direction is over”.

The email says that he understands that for many of the staff this “pathway forward may no longer be in line with your personal vision, beliefs, value and preference” and says that these people could leave ALU “no questions asked” with a one-off transition package. 

The announcement did indeed prompt a number of faculty to quit, including the three academics who made up the social sciences department.

ALU’s approach to higher education was always designed to prepare graduates for the workplace, with internships accounting for a significant part of students’ degrees, and curricula focusing on skills such as critical thinking, communication, self-leadership, leadership of others and entrepreneurial thinking.

But one former staff member told THE that the new way of doing things had become “too manifestly corporate” and “lost the essence” of what drew her to ALU. This had been “dialogue, debate, and knowledge creation and exploration, with Africa – and not only corporate Africa – always at the core. Those possibilities have really diminished in the new context,” she said.

According to Mr Swaniker, the changes are not “a radical departure from our vision”, as from the outset the university had wanted to provide “large-scale, unconventional education” to Africa’s youth.

He told THE that he had “concluded that we faced the risk of drifting back to the traditional university model”, which “would not help us achieve our vision within the very specific context of Africa”.

He said that many of his staff “were quite comfortable” with the university going down the traditional higher education route but that Africa does not have the “luxury of time and resources” for this.

Valerie Webster, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at Glasgow Caledonian, said the university “remains committed to the partnership” with the Mauritius campus. 

Professor Webster said that Glasgow Caledonian will be discussing with ALU “the impact of this new strategy on our partnership in the coming weeks. We have not been officially informed of proposed changes to the degree programmes in Mauritius, and we remain committed to the delivery of quality education at ALC [the Mauritius campus].”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

I applied to join this university back in 2015 and I was unfortunately unsuccessful. One of their values is student first and student centered design. I wonder what is the view of current students about this transition which will obviously affect them too. What does the changing of ALU away from being an academic institution mean for their graduates who will want to further their studies at academic institutions?
''The announcement did indeed prompt a number of faculty to quit, including the three academics who made up the social sciences department.'' Interesting news, the social science course is still being run thoug.h

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