The floodgates of university partnerships have opened and the international dimension of higher education in Africa is expanding. With the declaration of higher education as vital development tool, multilateral and bilateral regimes, foundations, and other development partners now favor the support of the sector, though still with constrained enthusiasm as the latest African Commission Report (2010) indicates.
Needless to say, partnerships are vital for capacity building in teaching, learning, and research. Joint research activities play an important role in fostering research capacity, nurturing research culture, pushing the frontiers of knowledge, as well as benchmarking quality. Meticulously developed long-term joint research partnerships have shown successful results.
In Ethiopia, for instance, long-term inter-university cooperations—through the support of Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and VLIR-UOS (Belgium)—have shown impressive institutional and national results. Quite a large number of PhD candidates have been trained; numerous programs have been developed; and sustainable capacities have been put in place. A large number of respondents that include institutional leaders, administrators, staff and students, agree that such results would have simply been impossible without the financial, logistical, and human resources made possible through the inter-university partnerships.
When capacity building in the context of university cooperation is considered, perceptions are generally that the Southern partners are the primary, if not sole, beneficiaries of the cooperation. What is even more disenchanting is that this perception is often internalized by the Southern partners. And yet, while the extent of the benefits to the Northern partners have not been clearly, and explicitly, documented, there is no doubt that they also gain from the partnerships in many ways. For instance, the discovery of a new cattle disease in Brazil by a Mozambican PhD student while in a fellowship indicates the potentials of such partnerships, as well as the benefits, to both parties.
In a recent visit to an institution, I had an opportunity to interact with a team of researchers involved in inter-university partnerships who discovered a new strain of disease that afflicts animals on the highlands of East Africa. Whereas the discovery may seem to have an immediate benefit to the Southern partners, the research and development—and thus know how—to regulate the disease, for instance, by way of developing a drug to control it, would have financial and intellectual benefit to the North.
Even without regard to the immediate and visible benefits, the know how to address such problems generates institutional and national knowledge capital for the North. In the current global realities, where the global is local and the local is global, the mutual benefits from such cooperation should not be underestimated, and for sure, not overlooked.
Whereas the modality and scope of partnerships, to be specific higher education partnerships, are diverse, complex, and numerous, they however, are not always successful, nor are they effective. In many cases partnerships do not simply live up to expectations for a number of reasons: from paltry financial resources to weak logistical support, from poor planning to substandard execution, from bad policy to cumbersome guidelines, from unstable leadership to inconsistent follow up.
As the number of institutional partnerships grows, their impact on institutional resources—time, funding, and infrastructure—and institutional dynamics—cohesion, complimentarity, and priorities—may be considerable. This may be particularly so in countries with a limited number of “partnerable” institutions in the region that tend to attract more development support.
We recognize that development cooperation have often been the subject of passionate political and academic debate of numerous school of thoughts. It is in light of this long and simmering, often acrimonious, debate that the Paris Declaration and the Accra Accord were promulgated. Though these declarations did not have in mind university partnerships in particular, the basic tenets governing them such as predictability, mutual accountability, ownership, alignment, and harmonization are both relevant and applicable.