African universities should make the most of their current ‘window of opportunity’ to access part of the €150 billion (US$163 billion) that the European Union (EU) agreed to invest in the continent last year, says Peter Maassen, a professor in higher education studies at the University of Oslo in Norway and an extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
He was speaking to University World News on the sidelines of a seminar held in Stellenbosch on 5 April 2023 on competition and collaboration in higher education. It was hosted by the Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP) of South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and National Research Foundation (NRF).
The EU and the African Union (AU) agreed on the Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package at their 6th summit, held in Brussels in February 2022. This followed an announcement by the EU the previous year that Team Europe, meaning the EU institutions and EU member states jointly, would mobilise up to €300 billion of investments for “sustainable and high-quality projects, taking into account the needs of partner countries and ensuring lasting benefits for local communities” between 2021 and 2027.
The first of the Global Gateway initiatives to be put in motion was the Africa-Europe Investment Package, which aims to support Africa in achieving “a strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation”, focusing on sustainable investments in key areas, ranging from infrastructure and health to education and the environment.
“The two unions agreed that universities would potentially have an important role to play in all of these areas. Now it’s up to them to show what is possible in practice,” Maassen said.
Building clusters of excellence
He traced the opportunity back to negotiations since 2018 about a new strategic collaboration agreement between the AU and the EU. In 2019, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen used her first trip abroad to call on the AU at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she spoke of a “true partnership of equals” instead of a “relationship based on development aid”.
The university sector was invited to contribute to discussions about a more equal strategic partnership between Africa and Europe. This led to a joint concept note in 2020 by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), a network of research universities in Africa, and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.
The document said that, to realise the ambitious objectives of the AU and EU, major investments in African universities’ research and innovation capacity were needed, and it called for investing in clusters of excellence, built on sustainable long-term alliances of African research universities and collaboration with European university networks.
This fed into the AU-EU Innovation Agenda working document of February 2022, which captured two important commitments – more effective use of existing programmes, such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, and new instruments for funding of African-European university networks.
“The AU-EU Innovation Agenda is a game changer because of its ambition to create equitable university partnerships in an unequal world,” Maassen said, highlighting several novel elements.
“What’s new is the emphasis on using scientific excellence to reduce scientific inequality.
“There’s also a shift away from unilateral and bilateral partnerships between African and European institutions to multilateral university collaboration through strategic alliances with a clear scientific profile.
“What is expected are alliances with at least three African universities and three European universities, working together on the basis of equality, and that they develop a long-term working programme for the next five to 10 years.
“Also, alliance development and success are assumed to depend on institutional leadership’s top-down and senior researchers’ bottom-up commitment and participation.
“And there is a focus on research capacity-building at African universities, with the ambition to develop African-European clusters of excellence.”
Four key thematic areas have been identified for collaboration:
• Public health;
• Green transition;
• Innovation and technology; and
• Capacities for science.
Maassen expects that a decision on which clusters of excellence in each of these areas are to receive the go-ahead will emerge from a meeting between the EU and universities from Europe and Africa in Brussels in June.
“The idea with these clusters is that all the partners involved will work at the forefront of knowledge development – for instance, on renewable energy, which is a global challenge. That’s admittedly very ambitious, which is no doubt possible, but competitive funding for joint research projects will not be applicable to all institutions.
“So, that is why there is also room for capacity-building along another route, such as high-quality joint masters degree programmes.”
Other areas around which institutions can put together proposals include African doctoral schools, postdoctoral fellowships and career opportunities on the continent for early-career African scholars, appropriate administrative systems, research infrastructure and equipment, and effective structures for knowledge transfer, social engagement and innovation.
“Universities’ relationship with civil society and the private sector is very important because the aim of this kind of capacity-building is to contribute to development,” Maassen said.
“It’s all about creating strong institutions, which is indispensable for any country to advance. You can’t address societal challenges without having reliable and relevant research, and neither will a country get the well-qualified people it needs to run its schools, hospitals, courthouses and governance structures without effective teaching and learning.”
Return on research investment
The developments of the past decades, including the emergence of an integrated global science system on one side and the growing competition of political systems on the other, as well as the enormously increased political and economic interest in higher education and research, have led to significant transformations of competition in higher education and the emergence of new forms of collaboration among universities.
Positioning universities as key knowledge institutions, Maassen pointed to a London Economics study earlier this year, which found that Cambridge University generated £11.70 (US$14.5) of economic impact for every £1 it spent, and that it generated £12.65 million (US$15.7 million) in economic impact across the United Kingdom for every £1 million of publicly funded research income it received.
“Cambridge is very proud to say that their annual economic impact is ‘four times that of the Premier League’s £30 billion’ through a combination of research, entrepreneurial activities, tourism and enhanced value that graduates bring to employment.”
In a similar study in 2018, the Bureau for Economic Research calculated that Stellenbosch University had a positive impact of ZAR5.6 billion (then about US$425.6 million) on the economy of the town and surrounding areas.
More than 15% of production and more than 18% of gross value generated in the local economy was stimulated by the presence of the university. It also sustained more than 13,000 full-time job equivalents – or 21% of formal and 8.7% of informal job opportunities – in the local economy.
The opportunity coming Africa’s way via the EU is another expression of global rivalry around the continent. Its other suitors include China, Russia and Japan.
At the China-Africa Cooperation Summit in 2018, China pledged US$60 billion towards development in Africa. A new multi-year government programme for China-Africa education cooperation has a preliminary budget equivalent to US$15 billion. And China has a major new programme for investing in African higher education. China also builds cultural and political capital on the continent via its Confucius Institutes.
The Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 had the topic, ‘Russia and Africa: Science, Education and Innovation for Economic Development’. Russia’s foreign policy, however, has divided Africa. Three years later, the war in Ukraine divided Africa. South Africa was one of 17 African nations to abstain from a United Nations resolution in demanding that Russia withdraw from Ukraine.
Japan’s official development assistance to Africa amounts to US$30 billion, including higher education investments of ZAR1.8 billion, educating 300,000 students.