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 sixth 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, European 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.