Saturday, August 19, 2017

Enhancing regional collaboration among universities

Ochieng’ Ogodo


[NAIROBI] Enhancing regional collaboration among universities through staff exchanges has a high potential in improving academic mobility on the African continent and developing the quality of higher education in Africa.

Dr. Moses Osiru, the Deputy Executive Secretary at the Uganda-based Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Secretariat, says it is also a means to ensure rationalization of existing capacity in Africa- including infrastructure, programs, staff capacity and resources.

RUFORUM that evolved from a predecessor program of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa program (called the Forum on Agricultural Resource Husbandry) is currently involved in the enhancement of regional collaboration among universities through staff exchanges.

According to Osiru, the focus of the FORUM was to provide mission and peer support to African faculties of agriculture to strengthen research and postgraduate training. The program run for 10 years before coming to an end in 2002.

“The University members who were part of FORUM created RUFORUM in 2004. Immediately upon the creation, the focus of the program began to evolve to take into account the needs of the initially 10 university members,” he says.
The members, according to him, were concerned about the need to ensure long-term capacity of the university to support high level skills building for the continent. They noted the need to ensure staff capacity building at PhD level, beyond the initial masters focus of the RF.

“They also noted the importance of strengthening collaboration, rather than just competition among the network members. Membership has since grown from 10 members to 12, and progressively to the current 66-member universities,” he points out.

Geographical focus has also been enhanced from Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, to West and North Africa, and the entire continent is now covered.

In 2014, the Vice Chancellors initiated the Graduate Teaching Assistantship program of RUFORUM and committed to train 325 PhDs using the GTA approach. Under this program a university would identify strong programs in its university and provide up to 5 tuition waivers for staff from RUFORUM member universities wishing to pursue PhD training

The university would also provide office space and request that the incoming PhD student participate in teaching and departmental responsibilities. The sending university would then pay the cost of tickets, research and student upkeep costs for the staff member on PhD training.

RUFORUM also ensures that short term staff exchanges continue to take place and staff from East Africa go to West Africa to teach for short periods ̶2 weeks to 3 months ̶ and vice versa.
To date, Osiru explains, over 70 PhD’s have been placed at various universities across Africa. This adds to the over 2000 postgraduate students trained through RUFORUM, including 356 PhD student.  
The staff exchanges have led to increased understanding of local situations across Africa. they have also been important in creating networks of researchers across the continent that are now responding to calls for proposals from funders and undertaking innovative research. The end result is a stronger continent, along the vision of the African Union Agenda 2063.

 On a wider scale, according to Osiru, regional collaborations and integration are critical to higher education reform in Africa: “The staff exchanges were seen as important mechanisms to ensure increased staff capacity building in the region. As universities continue to mushroom, staffing challenges also increase.”

 The regional collaboration and staff exchange has important benefits for the universities. Firstly, staff members retention rates significantly improved as it was found that over 98% of the staff remained in the region, and 94% remained in their own countries, much lower than for training programs that involved ‘sandwich programs’ with northern universities. Secondly, due to the sharing of capacities, staff from one university could also support in the teaching at the other university and to support the strengthening of university programs

For this purpose, RUFORUM Vice Chancellors (all 66 of them) signed an MoU to facilitate the sharing of staff capacity for teaching in the different member universities. Thirdly, costs were significantly reduced with training being done at nearby African countries. The program provides for greater opportunity for postgraduate training in the African universities. It also strengthens internationalization of program and reduces inbreeding.

 Most Universities in Sub Saharan Africa have limited regional and international collaborative activities required to boost and conduct cutting edge research, quality teaching, and resource mobilization in support of post graduate programs. We must highlight that there are many universities that have initiated strong innovations that demonstrate quality in research, teaching and learning. 

But challenges still remain. Many African university have been challenged with limited research, quality teaching and resource mobilization for various reasons. The universities are limited in terms of key resources needed to pursue a research agenda. There is the lack of funding and research infrastructure are critical limitations to research

At the same time, staff capacity continues to be a constraint with many senior staff often leaving research positions, either to move to administrative positions in the same university or out of the university

Qualified staff often are head hunted by international institutions, such as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other advanced research centers among others.
In addition to staffing challenges, incentive mechanisms are poor, with staff lacking adequate incentives to publish, or even more limited as incentives to enhance community engagement and impact on the community

Other challenges include the lack of pedagogical training for new staff who enter the university. Young academics are usually selected based on their performance at the undergraduate level and they move to teaching professions often without any teaching theory; There is also large classroom sizes that leave little time for staff to pursue research, or even excellence in teaching. As well, they faced with lack of strong quality assurance mechanisms that would ensure that students participate in evaluation of teachers, or monitor the research process adequately.

 Osiru says there are various things that be undertaken as the way forward. Building on local and international best practices, strong regional platforms provide a means of bringing together regional and international best practices is one of them.

“Networks like RUFORUM offer an important platform to engage African vice chancellors to support institutional transformation led from the inside,” he says

Therefore, enhancing regional collaboration among RUFORUM member universities through staff exchanges will ensure quality academic programmes and research outputs in various, according to him.

“Regional collaboration among RUFORUM member universities will ensure that universities are able to overcome common challenges through working together and increasing collaboration.”
Key challenges that will be overcome include capacity for resource mobilization, lack of specific offices to support internationalization, lack of support for families and related needs, particularly for women and language barriers.

The collaboration will also help overcome research that does not respond to national needs, inability to return home/institution after training and use of equipment unavailable at home
It will also help address the high cost of training and inadequate use of ICTs for teaching, learning, research and innovation

Lack of funding to support staff exchanges has been major hindrance to regional and international collaboration. But, Osiru says, RUFORUM is supported by African Governments and a consortium of donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MasterCard Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation, the European Union and others.

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