Transforming the future: Home-made African Research Universities Alliance is launched

ARUA seeks to build networks and pool resources that will build centres of excellence that will affect the continent as a whole

A ground-breaking Africa owned and driven collaboration, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), was launched Tuesday at a key higher education summit in Senegal. The launch was attended by the AU Chairperson, Dr Dlamini-Zuma, and politicians, stakeholders and professors from Africa’s higher education sector. 

Bringing together 14 university institutions from around the continent, ARUA aims to unite their distinctive fields of expertise, in order to achieve complementary and co-ordinated programmes of research and training. 

Professor Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, who sits on the executive committee of the Alliance, said ARUA was conceived out of a statement Chairperson Zuma made a couple of years ago when she “expressed the urgent need for Africa to develop a network of universities that allowed for the development of intellectual skills. Ones that would catapult Africa to the cutting edge of research on global challenges.” Habib said that “clearly there is an urgent need for Africa to develop it’s own intelligence, research base and students [and that] if we don’t do this, [Africa] will never be free”. 

So when Zuma made that point, Habib and a few others decided to act on conversations that they had in the past, “we decided we need to pull together and start discussing the possibilities,” he said. 

Research lagging

Africa’s universities have in recent decades shouldered massive increases in enrolments but without commensurate levels of growth in public funding. The consequence of this includes the fact that research from sub-Saharan Africa continues to lag behind both developed and developing regions elsewhere on the globe.

Chairperson Zuma said that “the initiative forms a critical part of the conversation that the continent must have towards it’s future, especially around higher education and research.” That the formation of an alliance addresses the key issues of the need for higher education institutions to cooperate and integrate, which will in turn “help us provide the answers on, for example, how to modernise and transform agriculture, the development of the most effective transportation systems to connect our urban centres, to build responsive health centres and prevent devastating outbreaks - like the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa - and how to protect and develop Africa’s biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.” 

Dr Max Price, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, was elected by ARUA’s newly formed executive committee as Chair. During the launch he described how Africa can take lessons from universities in other continents whose strategy for research development focused on a collaborative effort. “By bringing together a group of leading universities you create a cluster that can act as a catalyst for all other universities. This will in turn raise the quality across the board.” 

Price went on to say that “one of the future ambitions of the alliance is to identify the centres of excellence in other African universities that aren’t part of the alliance and create linkages”. 

Pooling resources

Going forward, ARUA will focus on pooling infrastructure and human resources, doctoral training - bringing together supervisors for stronger reviews on research activities, align the structure and quality of doctoral programmes - possibly leading to joint university degrees and allowing universities to leap-frog in progress through association with stronger institutions. 

A key future program of ARUA’s is the identification of a few large scale research projects which will span a large number of universities and seek funding for these projects. These projects could re-shape the future of the continent as they have the capacity to identify fundamental African issues and create African solutions to those problems. 

The themes of the research areas will be determined by individual university senior executives in charge of research within their institutions. Ideas will be circulated and presented to the alliance to determine interest and potential synergies. Price said that there had already been discussions on certain thematic areas which could become projects including; big data (pertaining to public health systems in particular), land spaces and fundamental physics and sciences.

Regional curricula

One of the key concerns raised by the audience at the launch was the cooperation between the newly formed ARUA and other pre-existing higher education collaborations on the continent. Habib addressed this saying that the alliance is “committed to working across boundaries and platforms, ensuring a shared prosperity” and that the role of ARUA is to be a “catalyst” in achieving unity. 

Pre-existing collaborations present at the launch included the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA). SARUA is a membership-based organisation open to all the public universities of the 15 countries that make up the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The organisation already has 57 members and is currently commencing its activities on a two year project to develop a regional curriculum and courseware for a Master’s programme in climate change and sustainable development. An indication of how a continent-wide initiative could eventually develop as a driver of Africa’s future progress. 

The universities currently in the alliance include:

University of Lagos, Nigeria 

University     of Ibadan, Nigeria 

Obafemi Awolowo University lle-Ife, Nigeria 

University     of Ghana

Legon University     of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania  

University     of Nairobi, Kenya 

University     of Cape Town, South Africa 

University     of Witwatersrand, South Africa 

National     University of Rwanda 

University Cheikh     Anta Diop, Senegal  

Makerere     University, Uganda 

University     of Stellenbosch, South Africa 

University     of Pretoria, South Africa Rhodes 

    University, South Africa

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