International Collaboration

International Collaboration from an African Perspective: Strengthening Partnerships for our Common Goals

Oluwaseun Tella

Immediately after Africa’s independence in the 1950s and 1960s, many universities were established alongside the few founded during the colonial era. Against the colonial backdrop and with a resolve to safeguard its newfound independence, the continent opted to Africanise its universities rather than implementing strategies of internationalisation and collaboration. However, the globalisation of universities exemplified by the world ranking of higher education institutions and the attendant quest for global relevance, among other factors, dictated that Africa would have to abandon this agenda in favour of internationalisation. The recent call for decolonisation of African universities ignited by the 2015 student-led protests across South Africa (#FeesMustFall) begs the question of the relevance of African universities to the continent’s developmental goals as its higher education sector wallows in a myriad of challenges such as Eurocentric epistemology, weak digital technology, low research output, poor infrastructure and outdated teaching methods in the era of the fourth industrial revolution and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


Despite the fact that many African states gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, it was only in 2005 that Africa adopted a regional strategy for education, science and development – Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) (Woods et al., n.d.). The CPA has two key objectives, namely, to enhance Africa’s capacity to apply science, technology and innovation to eradicating poverty and achieving sustainable development, and to enhance the continent’s contribution to global scientific knowledge and technological innovation (Woods et al., n.d.). These objectives should be viewed against the backdrop of the quest to strengthen African policies on science, technology and innovation and foster collaboration among African countries by sharing experiences and policy learning in pursuit of the internationalisation of their universities. Although the number of African universities skyrocketed from 100 to around 2,000, and enrolment increased from about 250,000 to around 14 million between 1970 and 2018 (Howie, 2019), these institutions continue to confront numerous challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, infinitesimal research output and anachronistic teaching, prompting the formulation and implementation of alternative strategies.

African Frameworks and Strategies on Higher Education

The African Union’s (AU) 2016 Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 (CESA 16-25) states that “harmonised education and training systems are essential for the realisation of Intra-Africa mobility and academic integration through regional cooperation”, while its 2019 Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024) seeks to “accelerate Africa's transition to an innovation-led, knowledge-based economy” (African Union, 2016, p. 7; 2014, p. 11). These strategies reflect the AU’s realisation that collaborative efforts in the area of education are fundamental to the continent’s path to development and that a knowledge-based economy is the panacea for Africa’s developmental woes. Agenda 2063, a normative and strategic framework, seeks to enhance African growth and development in a bid to enable the continent to become a global force. It recognises the potential salience of higher education in achieving these objectives, raising the need to invest in capacity building, especially in critical disciplines such as natural science and technology, as well as the social sciences and humanities, in order to change the mind-set of African people (Addaney, 2018).

In a bid to implement the CESA, the Pan-African University (PAU) was officially launched in 2011 (although it was conceived in 2008) to enhance research promoting African development. The PAU seeks to improve the region’s education standards and promote science and technological innovation, with the ultimate objective of fast-tracking regional integration against the backdrop of quality higher education in specific fields (Jowi, 2012).

Collective acknowledgement of the role of African higher education in promoting social and economic development (Woods et al., n.d.) has implications for collaboration among African academics and students. The African Union Commission (AUC) focuses on five research areas in selected higher education institutions that have been referred to as Pan-African University Institutes across the continent’s five key sub-regions. These include Life and Earth Sciences at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (West Africa); Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation at the Jomo Kenyatta University, Kenya (East Africa); Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Yaoundé II, Cameroon (Central Africa); Water and Energy at the University of Algeria (North Africa); and Space Science for Telecommunication, South Africa (Southern Africa). The PAU thus facilitates policy-informed multidisciplinary research programmes that are potentially critical to decision-making on the continent through its focus on collaborative, competitive and development-oriented research to fast-track Africa’s economic and social development.     

One of the key targets of Agenda 2063’s first 10-Year Implementation Plan is the establishment of an African virtual and e-university. It is envisaged that by 2063, 70 percent of secondary school graduates will be enrolled in higher education institutions, 70 percent of whom will graduate in science, technology and innovation programmes, thereby enhancing the human capital that has a significant effect on Africa’s development (African Union, 2015). Agenda 2063 further envisages a harmonised education system championed by the PAU, with centres of excellence across Africa and human capital that would remain on the continent rather than becoming part of the diaspora. Other key initiatives include the 2014 revised Arusha Convention, which seeks to promote mutual recognition of academic qualifications; the PAU; the AUC’s Mwalimu Nyerere African Union Scholarship Scheme established in 2007, which encourages African students to study in top universities on the continent; and the African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM), which seeks to promote a culture of quality in African institutions (African Union, 2015). However, implementation of these initiatives has been slow at best.  

The Call for Decolonisation and Harmonisation of African Higher Education

African higher education is not exempt from the Afropessimism that characterises discourse about the continent. While higher education was a public good in the immediate period after independence, the economic crises in the 1970s and 1980s and their attendant structural adjustment programmes resulted in a significant cut in African governments’ budgets for higher education, leading to the decline of premier universities such as the University of Ibadan, in Nigeria, and Makerere University, in Uganda (African Union, 2015), as well as their decolonial projects.

The recent call for decolonisation and Africanisation of the curriculum was ignited by the 2015 #FeesMustFall student-led movement in South Africa. The campaign underscored the need to transform the objectives, content and methods of curricula in order to produce graduates that understand the needs and imbibe and affirm the continent’s culture and values (Daniel et al., 2019). In a nutshell, Africanisation in this sense does not connote delinking from the West but promoting African consciousness towards the “fusion of epistemologies” (combining African and other forms of knowledge) to tackle the continent’s challenges (Higgs, 2020). This is crucial as, following decades of decolonisation, 21st century African universities still wallow in the hegemony of Western thought and the relegation of indigenous knowledge to the backburner, as reflected in Eurocentric and Americentric content and methods which often do not reflect African realities, especially the continent’s developmental needs. African higher education is thus failing to enhance the quality of life of African people (Daniel et al., 2019).

“The harmonisation of higher education in Africa is a multidimensional process that promotes the integration of the higher education space in the region. This objective is to achieve collaboration across borders, sub-regionally and regionally, in curriculum development, educational standards and quality assurance, joint structural convergence and consistency of systems, as well as compatibility, recognition and transferability of degrees to facilitate mobility” (Teferra, 2012: para.1).

Indeed, the harmonisation of African higher education has been championed by key organisations including the AU, the Association of African Universities (AAU) and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) (Knight, 2017). This has found practical expression in the establishment of the PAU, an increasing number of regional research and university networks, burgeoning intra-regional student mobility and the regional quality assurance framework (Knight, 2017). 

In a bid to enhance African higher education’s impact on the continent’s development and to compete globally, there is a need for more research and teaching collaborations among universities across the continent and beyond, serious investment in digital infrastructure and e-learning programmes, and student-centred teaching. Emphasis should be placed on research that addresses the continent’s socio-economic and political development and blended learning should be implemented in such a manner that convenience, affordability and increased accessibility (Daniel et al., 2019) do not jeopardise quality.

Internationalisation of African Higher Education

The establishment of universities across Africa in the immediate period after independence in the 1950s and 1960s prompted the newly independent states to participate in the UNESCO Conference on the Development of Higher Education in Antananarivo, Madagascar in 1962. Even at this early stage, they had realised the salience of internationalisation of African universities with a view to “increasing their chances of collaborating with other universities in Europe and Africa, as well as helping their students to have world-class training which would enhance their ability to compete with graduates from across the world” (Andoh & Salmi, 2019). However, only lip service was paid to this issue as post-independent African states prioritised Africanisation of the continent’s universities. This led to the emergence of decolonial schools of thought such as the Ibadan School of History in Nigeria, championed by scholars such as Kenneth Dike and Ade Ajayi; the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy in Tanzania, supported by academics like Walter Rodney and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba; and the Dakar School of Culture in Senegal, promoted by scholars such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Samir Amin. However, the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and the emergence of world university rankings in the 2000s reignited the quest for the internationalisation of African universities. Indeed, by 2003, the Universities of Ibadan, Ghana, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam had adopted an international mission and established offices for international programmes to enhance the mobility of staff and students and secure international research grants (Andoh & Salmi, 2019). In contemporary times, African higher education institutions have responded to deepening global interdependence by strengthening the capacity of their international offices. For example, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kenya’s Kenyatta University’s key offices include an office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor International, a Directorate for Internationalisation and a Centre for International Programmes and Collaborations, respectively (Andoh & Salmi, 2019). This implies that international offices now play a broader, more sophisticated role, promoting cooperation not only with other universities but also entities such as donors, foreign embassies and even overseas countries, raising grants for critical research areas and enhancing the global stature of African universities. There has also been increasing interest in African universities developing joint master’s and doctoral programmes with universities across other regions. The University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the University of the West Indies, Barbados, recently developed a joint master’s degree in Global Africa. Similarly, the Universities of Cape Town and Zambia have partnered with the United Nations (UN) to develop a transdisciplinary master’s degree programme in Sustainable Mining Practices (Slippers et al., 2015). Indeed, South African universities seem to take internationalisation more seriously than their African counterparts. This is seen in the efforts of universities such as Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Free State, which have established African regional centres. Stellenbosch has established the African Doctoral Academy while the University of Johannesburg has collaborated with regional and international organisations such as SADC (Andoh & Salmi, 2019) and the African Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP).

African Higher Education and External Collaboration

The 5th African Union-European Union summit held in 2017 highlighted the need for investment in education, science, technology and innovation (STI) and skills development (Zygierewicz,       2019). In terms of higher education, the following key priorities were set:

  1. promote the mobility of students, scholars, researchers and staff;
  2. harmonise higher education in Africa;
  3. enhance quality assurance and accreditation in African universities; and
  4. develop centres of excellence in Africa, in particular through the PAU (Zygierewicz, 2019).

In 2019, the European Commission, in partnership with the AU Commission, held a conference called Investing in People, by Investing in Higher Education and Skills in Africa (Zygierewicz, 2019). The Erasmus+ programme provides a framework for the EU and AU partnership. In 2018, 16,000 African academics and students benefitted from the previous Erasmus+ (2014-2020), with the number rising to 35,000 in 2020. Under the current programme (2021-2027), 105,000 African academics and students are expected to benefit by 2027 (Zygierewicz, 2019). 

It is against this backdrop that several European countries have realised the potential of partnering with African universities and developed various programmes with the latter to achieve key objectives. For example, in light of Germany’s key foreign policy objective of addressing climate change, the government’s WASCAL research programme has established ten graduate schools in West Africa to educate African students and policymakers in the areas of climate change and land management (Andoh & Salmi, 2019). The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Africa focused on five key areas in the period 2015-2020:

  1. promote the mobility of students, scholars, researchers and staff;
  2. harmonise higher education in Africa;
  3. enhance quality assurance and accreditation in African universities; and
  4. develop centres of excellence in Africa, in particular through the PAU (Zygierewicz, 2019).
  5. Strengthening synergies and co-operation by reinforcing the ties between German and African players, especially with Africa’s regional university associations (AAU, CAMES, IUCEA and SARUA) (DAAD, 2014).

Similarly, Sweden has partnered with a number of African institutions, especially Southern African universities. For example, drawing on Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) funding, Sweden has collaborated with universities in Rwanda, Tanzania and Mozambique in key science disciplines including Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics and Ecology (Stockholm University, 2019). This has been accompanied by high profile delegation visits to Africa. For example in 2010, a delegation from Stockholm University, including its former Vice-Chancellor Kåre Bremer and the Pro Vice-Chancellor, visited the University of Cape Town in South Africa to discuss the universities’ student exchange programmes; and in 2016, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) arranged for 13 presidents of Swedish universities to visit the Universities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch, and the University of Botswana to strengthen existing partnerships and develop new ones (Stockholm University, 2019). Moreover, African universities have sent delegates to their counterparts in Sweden for various purposes. In 2017 and 2018, student union executives from the University of Nigeria visited the Stockholm University Student Union and in 2019 representatives of a Tanzanian research funder, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), visited the Swedish External Relations and Communications Office to share their respective experiences in research communication and social media provided by the Swedish Programme for Information and Communication Technology in Developing Regions (SPIDER) (Stockholm University, 2019).

Beyond Europe, in 2000, four key American foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, formed the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) to coordinate their activities in strengthening the capacity of higher education in Africa (USAID, 2014). US-Africa partnerships have taken the form of cultural exchanges, public-private collaborations, academic exchange programmes, research collaborations and broader university partnerships. The Carnegie Melon University’s campus in Rwanda, which offers master’s degrees and boasts full-time staff and operations, is the first American university of its kind in Africa.

China-Africa collaboration is evident in the Chinese government’s scholarships to African students, partnerships between Chinese and African universities, the ubiquity of China’s Confucius Institutes across African universities, China’s provision of educational materials and financing infrastructure projects at African universities. The establishment of a Confucius Institute in Africa involves a partnership between China and a host African university, as the Institute is managed by two co-directors – one is Chinese and the other a member of the host institution’s academic staff. China is a major funder of infrastructure projects across African universities. For example, Beijing provided a $40 million grant to fund a library at the University of Dar es Salaam (Ngalomba, 2017). China also often makes pledges to African countries at the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In 2018, during the last FOCAC meeting, the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced 50,000 scholarships and 50,000 seminar and workshop opportunities for Africans (Zhu and Chikwa, 2021). 

Challenges Confronting African Higher Education

There is no gainsaying that African universities are characterised by a myriad of challenges from institutional to intellectual, pedagogical, political (Zeleza, 2002) and financial, to cite but a few. These are further complicated by the obstacles that confront many prospective students, including the increasingly high cost of tertiary education on a continent that is home to the largest number of poor people, with 38 percent of the population living on less than $1.90 a day in 2018 (prior to the emergence of COVID-19) (van Manen et al., 2021). It is thus not surprising that the 9.4 percent higher education enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa in the same year was significantly below the 38.4 percent world average. This has resulted in two key trends: first, many prospective African students now look beyond the continent (to countries such as the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Canada and France) for their education (with around 375,000 studying abroad in 2017); second, the proliferation of private African universities in a bid to meet increasing demand for higher education (Manen et al., 2021). Indeed, the number of private universities on the continent grew from 35 in 1969 to 972 in 2015, with significantly higher tuition costs than public universities, resulting in a shift from access to higher education as a public good, to access by a privileged few (Daniel et al., 2019). Increased demand for higher education and the attendant rise in the number of universities on the continent has exerted further pressure on the staff-student ratio as there are insufficient staff to teach the burgeoning number of students. Academics have a heavy teaching load and consequently less time for research. It is no surprise that African universities do not fare well in global research output; the continent accounts for 2.1 percent of global academic publications, significantly below Asia’s 33.1 percent and Europe’s 32.9 percent (Daniel et al., 2019).

In the era of the fourth industrial revolution and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, African higher education’s weakness in terms of digital infrastructure has been laid bare as a large percentage of African students struggle to work remotely due to lack of access to a reliable Internet connection, a stable electricity supply and personal computers, as well as expensive data; while academics have struggled to adjust to the digital realities of teaching and conducting research remotely. The continent needs to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 to develop its digital education, as it offers many potential benefits such as lower direct (tuition fees) and indirect (such as transportation and accommodation) costs of education, flexibility for students (learning at home or places of their choice and relatively at their own pace) and improved opportunities to combine study and work (van Manen et al., 2021). The University of South Africa (Unisa) and National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) are germane in this regard. The former is one of the largest open distance learning institutions in Africa with about 400,000 students and the oldest distance learning university in the world. The NOUN is also one of the leading open distance learning universities on the continent with around 500,000 students and 78 study centres across Nigeria. A recent report by eLearning Africa indicates that 83 percent of Africans support the transformation of the continent’s curricula for distance learning in the future (eLearning Africa, 2020).


To achieve innovation, African universities need to take investment in quality teaching and rigorous research more seriously.

Increased collaboration among African universities is important if African solutions are to be found to African challenges, as such partnerships can potentially have wider impacts on continent-wide policymaking and implementation.

There is often a gap between African universities’ internationalisation agenda and the focus and targets, such as science, technology and innovation, of key regional bodies like the AU, SADC and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It is therefore imperative to align African universities’ vision with the targets of these key regional organisations.

The quest for internationalisation should not be the exclusive preserve of international offices, but part of the day-to-day activities of African universities and must be reflected in their key responsibilities, including teaching, research, community engagement and academic citizenship.

The efforts of the African diaspora based at universities abroad are critical to the bid to internationalise African universities, as they are well placed to Africanise the curricula they are responsible for by, for example, prescribing African texts and offering Afrocentric syllabi.     


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