European universities must embrace truly equal partnerships with Africa

At the summit between the European Union and the African Union in Brussels this week (17-18 February), political leaders hope to lay the foundations for a new EU-AU strategic relationship. This has been the centrepiece of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s international ambitions. Universities have every opportunity to play a central role.

Less than a week after coming into office in December 2019, von der Leyen went to Addis Ababa to underline three priorities for cooperation: the green transformation, the digital economy and a partnership of equals. It was an agenda that overlapped significantly with the AU’s own agenda for growth and sustainable development, articulated in its Agenda 2063.

However, a few months later, the pandemic hit Africa especially hard. Vaccine inequality put the continent at a particular disadvantage. It not only reinforced the inequality between the AU and the EU but also put science, and the ability to translate scientific advances into societal benefit, at the heart of this inequality.

It is not surprising, then, that October’s meeting of AU and EU foreign ministers in Kigali foregrounded the need to increase African preparedness for the pandemic and to address its economic effects. Ministers also emphasised the green and digital transition as common priorities, acknowledging both the need to increase Africa’s research and innovation capacity and the importance of education and skills development.

The growing importance of science and innovation to the AU-EU relationship has already become apparent in practice. Horizon Europe’s Africa Initiative, for instance, has allocated a budget of €350 million (£290 million) for collaborative research and innovation projects involving African partners in 2021 and 2022 alone. Collaboration with Africa has also been prioritised in the new Erasmus+ academic mobility programme.

The proposal for a joint AU-EU Innovation Agenda, published just ahead of this week’s summit, thus builds on a growing momentum for science. At the same time, it is a truly transformative document, representing changes of tone and approach that are remarkable.

To begin with, the proposed agenda takes a long-term approach, identifying actions designed to build capacity over a period of 10 years or more. It is also distinctive in underlining the need for equity. For instance, it articulates the need to reverse the brain drain of African scientists, not least through investing in research infrastructures.

In this vein, it also proposes an inclusive approach to infrastructure access in both continents, facilitating movement in both directions. Indeed, the agenda’s focus on improving research facilities is significant, pointing to policymakers’ interest in boosting scientific capacity comprehensively and sustainably.

A centrepiece of the agenda’s proposals are the creation and strengthening of centres of excellence, which would bring together young European and African researchers, as well as senior researchers, through advanced study institutes. Funding for these centres would be competitively awarded to address interdisciplinary challenges and to foster south-south as well as south-north collaboration.

These centres would be supported by the creation of joint master’s and doctoral programmes and by the further development of existing programmes, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie doctoral and postdoctoral programmes. The agenda document also mentions the European University alliances, the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (Arise) programme (which supports world-class frontier science) and the Erasmus+ programme as avenues to strengthen African universities and support European and African collaborations.

In short, this proposed AU-EU Innovation Agenda is strong on ambition, clear in its analysis and rich in potential. It is a groundbreaking document because the EU, for instance, is moderating its own ambitions for scientific leadership with proposals for genuine partnership and sharing. Europe is pledging to avoid poaching talent from Africa and instead to identify ways to build it up, to mutual, long-term benefit.

The public consultation on the agenda has just opened. This offers an opportunity for wider input, to ensure that we can truly put long-term investment in Africa’s universities at the heart of the AU’s and the EU’s ambitions, supported by significantly enhanced collaboration at all levels.

The challenge of creating equitable partnerships is not one for policymakers alone. It will be solved only if universities and scientists address this issue seriously, too. This will involve difficult conversations about decolonising scientific practices and assumptions. Europeans will have to fully acknowledge the richness of perspective and insights that collaboration with African universities can bring. And they must fully recognise the contribution of the African continent to the development of modern science.

The EU and the AU have identified universities as gateways between Europe and Africa. This confers on universities a responsibility to use the investment that is likely to follow collaboratively and for the benefit of society. And it invites us to reimagine how we work together, as scientists, students and institutions.

Universities have been handed a huge opportunity to address our scientific, societal and economic challenges through genuine partnership. We should use it wisely.


Published Feb. 18, 2022 9:29 AM - Last modified Mar. 21, 2022 1:27 PM