AS policy-makers gear up for a summit on 17-18 February 2022 where a new multi-year strategic agreement (2021-27) between the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) will be introduced, research universities sent a clear message that enhanced African-European university collaboration should be a key component of the agreement.
This message was highlighted at a virtual conference themed “Strengthening the African knowledge society: Towards more sustainable African-European university partnerships” on 22 November.
Participants included AU and EU policy-makers, as well as university leaders and scientists from both continents.
The keynote speakers and panel members contributing to the conference addressed several questions, including how public research universities can contribute more effectively to the emerging African knowledge society and what the need for more equitable African-European partnerships means for universities.
Embedded in these were also discussions about the growing commitment of the EU to fund African-European research and innovation collaboration and the need for African countries to increase their investments in research and development.
The conference was organised by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), a network of 16 research universities, and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (the Guild), which has 21 members.
ARUA and the Guild have developed a joint initiative over the last four years aimed at influencing the policy-makers involved in the AU-EU negotiations.
Jan Palmowski, the secretary general of the Guild, said in his opening remarks: “As the AU and EU prepare for a joint innovation agenda to be introduced at the summit [in February], foreign ministers explicitly acknowledged the key role of education, skills development as well as research, technology and innovation in the green and digital transitions [as priority areas].”
“So, there is a huge momentum now developing to ensure that universities, and the research, education and innovation they foster, are integral to the AU-EU partnership vision of the future – both from the sector, but also coming from the policy-makers.”
The five key ideas and recommendations the participants at the conference put forward were to:
• Significantly strengthen intra-African research collaboration through major investments in clusters of excellence at African universities.
• Create synergies in research funding, which include: introducing the principle of matching national government funds to EU investments in research; stimulating effective couplings of EU funding instruments, especially Global Europe, Horizon Europe, and Erasmus+; and realising integral investments in research infrastructure.
• Support the development of strong continental research policy and funding institutions and agencies in Africa.
• Develop a valid continental science data base.
• Use and protect the open science principle in African-European research collaboration.
Nico Cloete of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and Peter Maassen, faculty of educational sciences, University of Oslo, Norway, in their keynote address entitled “Africa’s Research Capacity: Performance and potential”, argued that historically the focus of development aid to Africa changed from institutional development (colonial period) to individual development (African students and scholars studying and working outside the continent).
The new Africa strategy of the EU, however, is driving development through equal partnerships – in other words, it marks a fundamental shift from aid to strategic collaboration.
Cloete argued that in this new approach both the EU and AU are realising that development is not ‘bottom up’ or driven by individuals but depends on collaboration between excellent science, politics, and socio-economic actors (public and private), and that collaboration must connect to both institutional and individual development.
This approach raises the question of the extent to which Africa is producing new knowledge to participate in ‘strategic partnerships’.
Graph 1 below shows that from 2000 to 2020 there has been a steady increase in Africa’s share of scientific publication output in the world. This increase is significant because it is realised despite the dramatic increase in publication output in the rest of the world, particularly East Asia.
Another paradigm shift discussed by Cloete is that there is an emergent interest in the development of clusters of excellence, connecting pockets of excellence in science with other pockets of excellence, either within individual universities or, for example in the case of ARUA, between universities.
Table 2 shows that a number of centres of excellence have been established in Africa. Some concentrate on producing more masters and doctoral graduates, while others do both graduate training and new knowledge production.
As indicated by Cloete, work done by CREST has also shown that research at these African centres or clusters of excellence is aligning with AU-EU priorities. Graph 3 shows that this alignment is especially realised in the areas of green transformation and public health.
Addressing contextual challenges
Maassen, in turn, highlighted that a key condition for enhanced African-European university collaborations is the strengthening of research capacity at African universities.
However, for investments in African research capacity to lead to the expected outcomes, a number of contextual challenges had to be addressed, including the low level of public spending by African governments on research and development, and the low number of researchers in Africa.
“I want to emphasise the importance of the [research output] data and the positive picture that they show… The data generated by CREST … are of importance because they debunk some of the myths about science in Africa like the continuous myth that African science does not contribute more than 1 % to 1.5% of global science output,” Maassen said.
Another challenge is the continuous low level of research output produced through intra-African collaboration.
“A large part of the increase in research productivity in Africa is a consequence of relations with scholars elsewhere – in the US, EU, but also in China, Australia and Japan. Enhanced intra-African research collaboration is hugely important for responding more effectively to African challenges and issues.
“The idea that we have come up with, investments in inter-university clusters of excellence, can be a key component in strengthening cross-boundary research collaboration in Africa,” Maassen said.
Another challenge that needs to be addressed, according to Maassen, is the lack of a valid continental science database. As the data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows, for instance, even such basic statistics as national research and development investments (as a percentage of gross domestic product or GDP) and researchers per million of population are available for only a few African countries.
“In order to make valid decisions on further investments in science, and to get a better understanding of the science and policy interface and the interface of science and society for stimulating the innovative and entrepreneurial capacity of universities, it is extremely important to develop an African science database.
“A database where key indicators and statistics show how science is developing in Africa [and] where there is great potential [and] … where investment makes sense. As long as such a database is not available, it will be very difficult to make valid decisions on the further development of science.
“The data that we produce at Stellenbosch are data produced through projects. What is needed in Africa is that countries agree on the key indicators with respect to science, and make sure they report on it and contribute with valid data. In that way a continental database can be developed,” Maassen said.
The other points he made about investment in research and development and linking policy and science through institutions such as the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) were reiterated by Professor Catherine Ngila, the acting executive director of the AAS.
She pointed out that Africa spends about 0.45% of its GDP on research and development – significantly less than the global average of 1.7% and the AU target of 1% – and also that Africa has fewer than 100 researchers per million people, 10 times less than the global average of 1100 per million.
The underinvestment in supporting African researchers and institutions, said Ngila, had to be addressed to make a science career in Africa more attractive, which could increase the number of scholars working in Africa, and would enhance the quality of research.
“Empowered researchers will be able to implement the AU agenda,” she said. The EU-funded African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE) Pilot Programme – which has launched its call for proposals for summer 2021 – is an excellent example of how career paths for young African scholars can be built, how African research talents can be recognised, and how research capacity at African universities can be strengthened.
But the discussion on building a knowledge society in Africa, and the way to do it, did return to the financial means to make it happen.
Strengthening research capacity in Africa depends on sustainable funding, through national governments significantly increasing their investments in research and development especially at their countries’ research universities, through new investments of philanthropic organisations and the private sector, but also through strategic collaborative agreements with key partners such as the EU.
Growing commitment and engagement
Carla Montesi, director for the Green Deal and director at the Directorate General for International Partnerships at the European Commission, refuted the suggestion that the EU’s engagement with Africa was slowing down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, said Montesi, the EU was engaged to further strengthen its relationship with African partners. She referred to “a lot of new initiatives to deepen” the pre-existing AU-EU engagement.
According to her, the funding trajectory was going up. More specifically, she pointed to the budget for Africa in the Erasmus+ programme (2021-27), which has tripled in comparison with the previous budget period to €570 million (US$643 million) for Sub-Saharan Africa (6% in 2014-22 to 26% in 2021-27); the new Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme for cooperation between African higher institutions (which will include 105,000 African students’ and researchers’ mobility by 2027); and the plans of the Directorate General for International Partnerships to increase support to the ARISE Pilot Programme.
Similarly, Cristina Russo, the director for global approach and international co-operation in the Directorate General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, also confirmed that European cooperation with Africa did not slow down, but was rather “beefed up”.
The EU’s intentions to increase its financial support for African-European research collaboration were, for example, presented at the first ever high-level policy summit involving research and innovation ministers from both continents in July 2020. This summit has paved the way forward in terms of joint African-European research and development actions.
Russo referred to the Africa Initiative of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, which will cover 37 topics with an initial budget (2021-22) of €350 million (US$395 million) on priorities agreed upon at the ministerial meeting aimed at contributing to finding solutions to problems in Africa.
“COVID did not stop or slow us down. We upgraded our support to the AU,” said Russo.
The programming for another initiative, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, will be finalised in the next few months.
It has a total budget of €79.5 billion (about US$90 billion), of which €29.2 billion has been allocated to Sub-Saharan Africa. Thematic areas include health and human development, climate change and digitalisation and technology.
Although the details about the new EU-AU partnership and where universities fit into the agreement – and what it means in terms of resources – still may have to be mapped out, the conference yielded positive outcomes in terms of confirming the joint AU-EU commitment to tackling obstacles that are preventing African universities from playing a stronger role in the new partnership.
Ernest Aryeetey, secretary general of ARUA, said the conference was positive. According to him, the case was clearly made for “the need to scale up investments in African higher education, research and innovation”.
In addition, university leaders who participated in the conference showed what they could do based on their experiences while very experienced researchers with significant partnerships behind them shared with us what works best in getting good results for Africa, he said.
He believed that support for the inter-university clusters of excellence proposal, as put forward by ARUA and the Guild, was forthcoming.
“I see significant expansion and some new initiatives from the EU side in supporting public universities in Africa. The challenge remains how to give the African side a greater voice in the new efforts at co-creation of programmes, as they work with European universities,” said Aryeetey.
He also believed that ARUA has increasingly been acknowledged as an alliance that can contribute significantly to the development and implementation of the AU’s strategies for realising the African knowledge society.
* University World News