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Thinking through the future of education in Africa at Windhoek, Namibia

‘From July 4 to 7, African Administrators of Higher Education of the caliber of Vice-Chancellors, Rectors, and Directors of various centers met face-to-face in Namibia. It was time for the 22nd edition of the Association of African Universities Biennial Conference of Rectors & Vice Chancellors 2023 (aptly tagged COREVIP 2023). The theme of the conference was “Advancing Excellence in African Higher Education’

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‘…the minds behind the Charter want a new deal and way of conducting research on and about Africa as a continent. They are interested in including alternative (or maybe) oppositional knowledge production sites outside of conventional research centers. It is obvious that the present research system is not appropriate, and it appears to propagate unfair power imbalances. There are suggestions as to how to correct the long-term abnormalities’

…A charter that will shatter subservience?

WHAT would run around your head when you read on the internet that a conference would entertain about 800 participants from Africa, Europe, the Americas, Asia, and other parts of the world? In addition, participants were guaranteed to interact with over 400 members of the Association of African Universities and that notable Heads of Institutions would be present, what would your initial reaction be? That same conference also promised possibilities of networking with African academics from the five regions of Africa including the Diaspora. If the organisers added lines like ‘we do not promise to deliver; we deliver promises’, they would not be speaking tongue in cheek. The conference ran like the mythical efficient old grandpa’s clock.

From July 4 to 7, African Administrators of Higher Education of the caliber of Vice-Chancellors, Rectors, and Directors of various centers met face-to-face in Namibia. It was time for the 22nd edition of the Association of African Universities Biennial Conference of Rectors & Vice Chancellors 2023 (aptly tagged COREVIP 2023). The theme of the conference was “Advancing Excellence in African Higher Education.” There were also six sub-themes ranging from Doctoral Education; Institutional Differentiation; Partnership/Cooperation & Internationalization; University-Industry Linkages; Funding & Financing; Role of Intellectual Diaspora. Would you believe that Namibian Student Union members were also given a platform to inform a slim audience about the Higher Institution of their dreams? I must quickly confess that as a ‘poor reporter’ getting to Windhoek Country Club & Resort Conference Centre, Windhoek, Namibia, the venue of the conference, was a dream that was made possible by the grace of technology. The slight time difference between Namibia and the UK was no deterrence, I still managed to savour most of the virtual delicacies on offer. In short, I monitored this event from my laptop – just to be clear.

In the few days, I came away with the notion that education is a smokeless industry. You just cannot imagine the number of agencies involved in education, little wonder terms such as Quality Assurance and Accreditation, research ecosystem, networking, and linkages were freely used. Apart from universities and polytechnics on call, let me randomly name a few agencies that were represented at the conference. There was Ubuntunet Alliance for Research and Education Networking; National Commission on Research, Science & Technology (NCRST); African Population and Health Research Centre based in Kenya. Also present was the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA); the Namibian Agronomic Board (NAB); the Pan African Society for Agricultural Engineering (AfroAgEng); Virtual Internships based in Dubai.

To be sure that not all participants spoke English, there was also an organization identified as Geoéconomiste et Géohistorien Polyglotte Junior (Junior Geoeconomist and Geohistorian Polyglot). Canada was represented by International Development Research Centre (IDRC), an organization based in Ottawa, Ontario. The agency was represented by Dr. Katie Bryant. During one of their sessions “informed recommendations were made to address gender disparities in STEM fields in the African higher education landscape.”

The United Kingdom was not left out, Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA) was founded in 2016 as a charity registered in the UK. Its vision is to see transformed educational outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. Its purpose is to join up, inspire, focus, inform, and increase impact for everyone investing in education in sub-Saharan Africa. Their “early emphasis is on tertiary education, with four key initial areas: Faculty, African research on education, Scholarships for Africa, Education data, and statistics. Funders of ESSA include the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the MasterCard Foundation, and the Jacobs Foundation.” The active presence of Dr. Lucy Heady, the Chief Executive Officer of ESSA, could not be missed, she was either chairing sessions or conducting an envisioning exercise.

I must confess that I missed the presentations of government officials from different countries, but I was lucky to catch the keynote presentations, especially by Prof. Is-haq Olanrewaju Oloyede, the Registrar of Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB). He spoke on “Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges: Strategies for Advancing Excellence in African Higher Education.” As a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, he knows the way and could navigate the potholes on the highway of tertiary education even with his eyes closed.  He divided his presentation into various easy-to-digest sub-heads; the barrier to access, breaking down the barriers, and identification of priority areas.

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It was during one of the question-and-answer sessions that an informal evaluation of Professor Oloyede’s presentation was driven home by the ever-ebullient Professor Peter Akinsola Okebukola. He said the presenter touched on all the barriers in his own list and in fact added some more to the list of barriers. If you know just a little about Professor Okebukola, whose research interests span science, computer and environmental education, and quality assurance in higher education among many other interests, you would not be surprised that he was always the first to raise his hand after most presentations.

When it was the turn of Prof. José Celso Freire Junior, an Associate Provost for International Affairs, Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) Brazil, the audience was led into a forest of statistics showing the higher educational landscape in Brazil. To a Nigerian, the talk about tuition-free training programs must have sounded like a very sweet melody. It appeared that he was offering an open invitation to scholars of different universities on the African continent to take advantage of their exchange programs. At the conclusion of his presentation, he announced the next conference of Brazilian Association for International Education (FAUBAI 2024), which will take place in April 2024. What would I not give to be at such a gathering!! I know, as the cliché goes: if wishes were horses, beggars would get on the back of one and gallop away.

It was no surprise that the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) came up with the statement which is reproduced in part below; “With respect to building bridges, it is particularly encouraging to note the attendance of a significant number of higher education leaders from the Latin America and the Caribbean Higher Education Space (ENLACES). Speakers from Argentina and Brazil stressed their commitment to the establishment of strong south-south partnerships with the #AfricanUnion, in order to promote staff and student mobility, research collaboration and shared curriculum development. The speakers referred to the ground-breaking visit by a delegation of African higher leaders to Argentina in March 2023, to explore opportunities for south-south collaboration. It is exciting to note that, under the leadership of the AAU and university representatives in Latin America, a process is underway to promote effective south-south collaboration to promote concrete partnerships in addressing common challenges such as food security, climate change, healthcare, and youth employability. The development of strong bridges between the higher education sectors in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the developing world, signals an important step forward in promoting effective south-south collaboration.”

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SINCE no one buys everything in a market, no matter how rich the person is, there must be a product or two that draws one’s attention. The panel on (University-Industry Linkages) “Promoting University-Industry Linkages: The Role of Entrepreneurial Intention, Training, and Action” detained my attention. Sure, I understood terms such as the Triple and quadruple helix, Vital-M, and others. I quickly contacted Professor Harmony Musiyarira who made an interesting presentation about Quadruple Helix Model of Innovation to Higher Education – The NUST Case and Prof. Sombo Muzata who took listeners on the innovative idea about “Positioning Africa’s Universities for Successful Industry and Governmental Trade Agency Linkages: A Case for the VITAL Model.” The good thing about conferences like this is to find ways of linking scholars who may not be aware of what others are doing. To ensure that talk and walk are in sync we contacted Dr. Mustapha A. Popoola, the Convener, Advisor, Researcher of Science 2 Business to arrange a meeting with these like-minded scholars.

The Yoruba people have a saying which translates roughly as how many of the teeth of the mythical Adepele can be counted by anyone. There was a very interesting session on “Youth Mobility for Africa – a flagship initiative under the Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package.” The electronic footprint informs us that “The Global Gateway Africa – Europe Investment Package aims to support Africa for a strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation by Accelerating the green transition, Accelerating the digital transition, accelerating sustainable growth and decent job creation, strengthening health systems, Improving education and training.” Please do not count on me to give a succinct rendering of what transpired during that panel. The word that registered in my mind was Erasmus. I guess it is one of the European exchange programs. 

If the number of agencies was astounding, then new concepts about how to constantly transform learning and teaching would drown any novice coming to such a conference for the first time. Professor Okebukola reminded everyone that the term student is now old school and now replaced by the better notion of learners. For a moment I thought he was going to suggest “clients” instead of students. Each of the speakers provided good soundbites amidst thought-provoking presentations. The current Registrar of JAMB said something like “make your contacts into connections” meaning that the participants should not just collect email addresses but should ensure that they follow up and follow through.

If there is an award for the most repeated sound bite, it must go to Dr. Divine Fru. He re-told a story that was told to him by his grandmother. The story is about a woman who learned how to perform the dance steps of others but at her death, no one knew her own dance. Dr. Fru said the lesson from the story should be directed at the African continent where scholars are good at performing the dance steps of other continents but are hardly known for their own original dance steps. Apart from #AfricaDanceYourOwnDance. Dr. Fru also talked about a person who sleeps on a borrowed mat is as good as sleeping on the floor. The lessons from these sound bites were not lost on his audience.

So far, I hope I am not giving you the impression that it was all sweet talk and no drilling down to the essence of the gathering. One important event was termed the “historic launch of the Africa Charter on Transformative Research Collaborations initiative.” To conclude this summary of the conference, I will attempt a review of the eleven-page electronic version at my disposal.

Review of the Charter

‘To all scholars of power, it should not be difficult to understand or accept that the continent that defines a problem or challenge controls the narratives. Power is hardly given freely on a platter without struggle’

THERE is no doubt that the Charter was conceptualised and articulated by very highly-placed intellectuals and other intellectuals. A casual reader may be at a loss as to how the present form of social science extractive research differs from this laudable intervention. If external stakeholders read between the lines, it may be obvious that the minds behind the Charter want a new deal and way of conducting research on and about Africa as a continent. They are interested in including alternative (or maybe) oppositional knowledge production sites outside of conventional research centers. It is obvious that the present research system is not appropriate, and it appears to propagate unfair power imbalances. There are suggestions as to how to correct the long-term abnormalities. Since no document can be without flaws, the Charter as a document is not divided into different time dimensions of short-, medium- and long-term expectations. It instead focuses on the disaggregation of stakeholders. It lists research institutions, research funders, research/Higher Education assessment bodies, governments, international science bodies and science publishers. There is no doubt that they covered most of the bases.

Another area of interest and a bold one at that is the demand for reciprocity for capacity building from those who have hitherto paid the piper and dictated the tune. How the proponents of this Charter intend to operationalize this notion of reciprocal capacity building remains to be seen. To all scholars of power, it should not be difficult to understand or accept that the continent that defines a problem or challenge controls the narratives. Power is hardly given freely on a platter without struggle. While searching for the history of conferences in general, someone directed my attention to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History “a meditation on the characteristics of power and how it influences the creation and recording of histories.” To buttress Trouillot’s point I recalled a Yoruba saying where elders enjoin that a child must not ask what made his father an ancestor until that child has an implement of self-defense and attack.

If I ever have the ears of the authors of this Charter, my first concern would be how to construct a “functional step-down transformer” meaning a systematic communication plan to move from Vice-Chancellors to their heads of departments and finally to individual professors, instructors, and graduate students. I am aware that the proponents of the Charter are made up of listening intellectuals. I say this because whilst the Rectors and Vice-Chancellors lined up to endorse the Charter someone raised the issue of why the administrators were signing a document they were yet to read and digest. A response by one of those in charge indicated that “I hear your note of caution on the subject of de-endorsement/buyer’s remorse, but those who have not fully immersed themselves in the detail can, of course, withdraw themselves at any time, in the unlikely event of realising they’re not in sympathy with the principles. The signature is not a binding one (at this time; the project may well map out more formal institutional engagement at a later stage).”

This Charter may be eleven pages long, but any reader would be convinced that much thought and consultation went into its making. Can anyone reading this brief review imagine what it would look like if a Zoom meeting of Directors of Centers for African Studies globally is convened to obtain their buy-in.

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Conclusion

‘…as I ponder on the richness of this conference, the words of and the challenge thrown by Professor Peter Okebukola keep ringing in my creative mind. He asked if there would be a blueprint for the advancement of excellence in African Higher Education by 2050’

THE day would come when interested parties like my humble self would be allowed to contribute to the design of conferences of this magnitude. My first suggestion would be that each participant reflects on how they intend to disseminate the essence of the conference even before the first paper is presented. The question would be simple; how do you intend to share lessons from the conference with at least 10 other institutions or individuals that could not make it?

If my suggestion is taken for granted or dismissed without consideration, I owe it a responsibility to share my perspectives on the different ideas floated during the conference. On that premise, as I ponder on the richness of this conference, the words of and the challenge thrown by Professor Peter Okebukola keep ringing in my creative mind. He asked if there would be a blueprint for the advancement of excellence in African Higher Education by 2050.

When you are merely gazing into a party you wish you were invited to, heed the call of making one’s voice heard in line with Franz Fanon, and  Malcom X’s, ‘by any means necessary’. I sent a message through Professor Wisdom Tettey; thus, do we not already have a blueprint for higher Education?

Can someone provide Prof with AU’s Agenda 2063? Should Agenda 2063 not be reviewed before starting another journey? As soon as the message was received a response arrived via the channel it was sent. “I had the opportunity to mention your comments to Prof. Okebukola. He said his suggestion was situated within the context of Agenda 2063 and that he was only pushing for an accelerated pace.” I think it was Prof. Olusola Bandele Oyewole, Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities who quickly responded that a committee to be headed by…..yes you guessed right, professor Peter Okebukola, would be set up to produce a blueprint for Higher Education from the different zones.

We outsiders to COREVIP 2023’s party promise to keep a watching brief and monitor if those who talked would also do the walk. Now I understand the often used (and misused) phrase that the world is now a global community of interlinked curious beings.

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