The rush to enroll students to the Pan-African University  (PAU) is well underway. The University is racing to disseminate the information on the program; to receive, screen, and select applications; to invite applicants to interview; and to guide and enroll/place students in the designated hubs. On the other hand, the faculty are also to be solicited, recruited and hired; the programs accredited; the academic infrastructure established; the governance structure put in place. All these in three months by September 2012!
The academic program was communicated at a May 2012 conference entitled “African Higher Education Harmonisation: Tuning and Shaping Responsive and Quality Post Graduate Education”—a joint initiative of the African Union and European Commissions. This article captures the comments, critical issues, and reflections of the African scientific and academic community around the initiative as encouraged by the PAU representative at this event held in Cape Town, South Africa.
Public Relations: The Overlooked Task
At the presentation of the PAU initiative at the conference, it was evident that only a few of the representatives from 60 universities have been aware of the program. And yet, these conference participants came from institutions all over Africa—East, West, North, South and Central—where the five hubs are being established.
Most agreed that an extensive outreach and dissemination of the program should be undertaken before the program becomes operational, or else, as someone put it, the hubs would likely turn into an extension of national programs deprived of the intended regional flavor, alluding to a need to creating more awareness about the program in the region.
Equity: A Forgotten Component
According to the call for applications, the age of applicants for the Masters and PhD programs is 35 and 40 years old, respectively. This policy unfortunately is insensitive to gender considerations. While the program is striving to be equal to all, it however lacks equity. The program, without compromising its motto of “excellence and quality,” could have easily considered additional two more years for women to address existing inherent equity issues—as motherhood and family responsibilities tend to drag women in their studies and academic progress.
For instance, in the scholarship program this author used to implement, no age limit was imposed on applicants and this policy served women and other disadvantaged groups particularly well. With wide consultation and open dialogue, such shortcomings could have been easily rectified.
Transparency: The Deep Concern
One of the most common concerns on the program reflected at the conference is the state of its transparency. This is simply because the mechanisms and processes of transparency are not as clear to many as they should be and thus a sense of transparency gap is evident.
The questions that need to be effectively and explicitly addressed to dispel this concern include: What would be the nature and mode of selection criteria and who would set them? Who would be collecting, prescreening, and screening the applications? Who would be interviewing and recommending applicants for the award of the scholarship? What would be the profile and composition of these bodies? Who would elect and select these bodies? When and at what stage would the political arm folded and the academic arm extended? How would the opportunity be protected from possible and anticipated prejudice, favoritism, and nepotism? What would the institution be doing to arrest these concerns and build requisite confidence?
Slot Allocation: The Treacherous Affair
When fully operational, each hub expects to enroll a total of 100 Masters (70) and PhD (30) students a year. The lingering and complicated questions that need to be addressed at this stage include: How would the slots be divided? Would the allocation take a much simpler (but awkward and unrealistic) approach of dividing it to all member states or a more controversial (may be inequitable) approach of allocation on purely merit basis? Would diversity, maturity, and size of higher education development in countries, such as Botswana, Malawi, Nigeria, Seychelles, and South Africa, considered equally? Would politics affect the allocation of slots to respective member states? What implications would this have on the selection process and the quality of the program? What would happen if no application is received from certain countries? What would happen if more, and competent, students applied from some countries than others? What if more students from a certain country/ies applied in one hub than another? Would there be considerations for application gaps in some hubs for the sake of others? Would the hubs communicate among each other for the sake of addressing these gaps? What mechanisms would be in place to counter possible pressure from a country which has had few or no beneficiaries from the program? All these questions and issues should be seriously considered.
Governance and Leadership: Time for Transition
The African Union Commission and the respective unit should receive undiminished recognition for their persistent effort in realizing the vision of establishing the PAU. Now, the time has arrived for this politically-driven academic initiative to be handed over to a more legitimate, more credible, more competent, more experienced, and more transparent body to implement it. If this is not possible at this stage, the involvement of other more relevant, knowledgeable, reputable, and concerned organizations, such as the Association of African Universities, in different capacities and different levels, should be effectively guaranteed. For instance, the extensive regional experience of the Association in student recruitment, screening and selection, could play an important, and credible, role in taking over this cumbersome and sensitive task.
The success of the PAU lies in effective implementation of the program, achievement of its mission, and delivery on promises. And yet a plethora of issues, challenges, and gaps, as outlined in this article, confront the initiative from taking off with credence and transparency—at this pace. For instance, the University, which is rushing to enroll students, has not yet put in place its Rectorate and associated governance structures and processes. It was the observations of many African academics and policy makers that the PAU is short on visible leadership, prominent and credible personalities, and powerful voices to steer the initiative at this critical juncture of its life.
It should be stressed that, the establishment of a Rectorate comprising of prominent, credible, reputable, competent, and highly respectable academic leaders of international standing—who maintain a healthy and respectable distance from politics—is paramount. Academic institutions have unique mission, culture, history, organization, and governance. Therefore, it would be counterintuitive, if not self-defeating, to contemplate the leadership of the university by the African Union Commission—a political body—much longer.
Accreditation: Urge for Legitimacy
At the PAU presentation session, the different speakers informed the audience that accreditation of the programs in the respective hubs are ongoing. Many participants however asked the compelling reasons for undertaking this process as the hosting institutions are nationally recognized already.
Furthermore, the audience was informed that the official diploma will be a joint-degree granted by the respective hubs and the PAU. It is true that higher education has witnessed remarkable developments globally, but as of yet, an institution as the PAU wanting to ink a degree—while it is widely delinked from the academic process—has not emerged. This is not simply a technical or even a political issue alone, but a market one as well. What would be the joint-degree from such an arrangement worth at the global market place of competing diplomas? Such an issue, among many others, need to be closely and carefully examined.
The Language Predicament: Whose Language Is It?
Several concerns were also raised at the conference on languages of instruction. One of the prominent ones include: “What happens to a Senegalese student (French speaking) in a Nigerian University (English Speaking)?” It was clear that the institutional hubs will not turn bilingual but instead the program requires students to undergo a six-month language training. It was however unclear if the training takes place at the country of the host institution or the student and whether this is effected for all the four major instructional languages—English, French, Arabic and Portuguese.
This as it may, in full consideration of the delicacy of the matter, it may be relevant to state that countries such as Germany, France and Italy are increasingly conducting scholarship (teaching and research) in English. This is part of their policy to enhance and consolidate their global leadership in scholarship and innovation. The approach taken by Erasmus Mundus as regard to studying in multiple languages is instructive.
Decision Overdue: Politics Trumping Pragmatism?
The decisions on the designation of the PAU hubs have not always been a gentleman’s affair. Making a decision on the fourth hub particularly took a considerable diplomatic row between Algeria and Libya. With the downfall of the Libyan regime, Algeria found itself in a better position to host the hub. The last hub, which is supposed to host programs in space sciences, is yet to be determined among countries in southern Africa.
And yet the reality is that South Africa is now a global hub for space sciences, as it is disclosed recently, that it has become one of the two global centers where the world's largest and most sophisticated telescopes will be constructed. In the words of Bernie Fanaroff, South Africa’s project director of, what is known as, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) at the awarding, it “means that for the first time in our history, Africa will be the host to the world's largest scientific instrument. And it shows a great deal of faith by the rest of the world in our ability and our capacity to both build and operate such a sophisticated instrument. It also reflects the recognition in Africa of how important science and technology is to our future." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18194984)
With such compelling reasons and global competitive edge, it is only sensible to make the decision to host the space sciences hub of the PAU in favor of South Africa—the giant of the continent—soon.
The Pan-African University is far from ready to accept students by September 2012. Considerable academic, logistical, technical, legal, management, governance, and public relation activities should be undertaken before rushing students to the system. Or else, the reputation of the program may be severely damaged at the outset.
The African Union Commission should be urged and persuaded by all stakeholders—academicians, scholars, students, institutional leaders, NGOs, think tanks, regional economic communities, university associations, and development partners—that its standing as a political body neither allows nor grants it legitimacy or credence to run an academic institution as the PAU—any longer. The experience of the United Nations University  may be instructive as the initiative is moving forward.
To be sure, the credit for launching the PAU will always belong to the African Union Commission. But the Commission has to promptly handover the initiative to more appropriate and more legitimate bodies to rescue it from possible damage to its reputation—or worse failure.