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NAFSA forum: successful partnerships in Africa start with honesty and goals

An awareness of limited resourcing and clearly defined goals are crucial for successful partnerships with institutions in Africa, according to educators on and off the continent.

"We sign the MoUs, and very often the partners in the global north are unaware or do not fully understand the constraints under which those things take place", said Peyi Soyinka-Airewele. Photo: The PIE News

"How do we create an engagement that transcends that limitations of our classrooms and our libraries?"

And African institutions should begin to position themselves as study hubs for mobile students deterred from studying in top global destinations.

These topics formed the basis of the discussions at the first Africa forum held at NAFSA’s annual conference last week in Los Angeles.

“Understanding precedes transformative action,” stated Kelechi Kalu, vice provost for international affairs at the University of California, Riverside, emphasising the importance of dialogue before entering into formal agreements, and knowing how the partnerships can be mutually beneficial.

“I know when I teach African politics, it’s quite different from when people who have not lived, studied, grown up on the continent actually teach it”

“First we have to know what we have, what we want, why we want it before we can ask outsiders to help us,” he said.

Saying MoUs are sometimes like “love without passion”, Kalu nodded to many examples of institutional partnerships based on these memoranda of understanding, that ultimately have little to no implementation of the next steps. “You need to do something to sustain it,” he counselled.

A delegate from Tanzania also pointed out that the action following MoUs often falls flat, because of resource constraints.

It is important to be candid about resource limitations, commented Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, professor of African and Comparative/International Politics at Ithaca College in New York state.

Soyinka-Airewele has established a global collaborative classroom at Ithaca College with institutions in locations including Nigeria, South Africa and the West Bank, where, among other things, students can partner on projects with students from these overseas institutions.

Understanding resource constraints that the partner institutions face is key, and being open about what you can bring to the partnership can make it successful, said Soyinka-Airewele.

“This is one of the mistakes African universities make, and it allows many things to collapse,” she said.

“We sign the MoUs, and very often the partners in the global north are unaware or do not fully understand the constraints under which those things take place.”

She referred to a time when her partners on the continent experienced a power outage. “We then had to go ahead and write into the programming the funding for students to go to a cyber café outside of the university to have access to that program,” she explained.

Alternative mobility opportunities for faculty and researchers is another way in which institutions can match up, said Kalu.

“Tell them, send us your retired professors,” he told African leaders. “Send us your service learning students, send us your professors who just want to do research.”

Meanwhile, Soyinka-Airewele extolled the benefits first-hand knowledge has on students’ learning experiences outside of Africa.

“I know when I teach African politics, it’s quite different from when people who have not lived, studied, grown up on the continent actually teach it,” said Soyinka-Airewele.

“When I talk about African cinema, I know there is something different that happens in my students because of the intimacy, because of the knowledge of languages and the cultures, and what I can explain to them.”

She asked: “How do we create an engagement that transcends that limitations of our classrooms and our libraries? This is what, for me, internationalisation is all about.”

It’s no secret that higher education in Africa faces a number of challenges in its global growth. For example, demand is high for both access to higher education and a high calibre faculty to teach at existing institutions.

But a research paper entitled Internationalization of higher education in an era of xenophobic nationalisms, by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, vice chancellor of the United States International University-Africa in Kenya, argues that African universities suffer from both too much and too little internationalisation.

Read at the forum, the paper outlines Zeleza’s opinion: “[There is too much internationalisation] because they are modelled on the higher education systems of the global north and many have yet to fully decolonise themselves in their structures, processes, governance and curricula,” he writes.

“African universities should seek to attract some of the best, wealthier African students who flock to these countries”

“African universities also exhibit too little internationalisation in the composition of their faculty, students and administrators.”

However, in the era of increasing xenophobic nationalisms, Zeleza attests that African universities have the opportunity to transform themselves into “viable centres in global higher education”.

“As key countries in the global north become increasingly non-hospitable to international academic flows and engagement, African universities should seek to attract some of the best, wealthier African students who flock to these countries,” he writes.

“Also, they should seek to appeal to students from other regions of the global south unable and unwilling to go to the north.”

And efforts should be redoubled to attract African diaspora from the global north, he adds.

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