by Dr. Meseret F. Hailu
African universities are important institutions that provide new knowledge and contribute to workforce development for populations across the continent. African higher education institutions have been doing this for centuries. In fact, the oldest higher education institution in the world is African: Al-Azhar University was founded in Cairo, Egypt in 970 AD. However, when most of us think of cutting-edge universities or premier world-class institutions, we probably do not think about a higher education institution on the African continent. This is a missed opportunity to collaborate with innovative and agile institutions.
Since becoming a tenure-track faculty member in 2019, I have seen limited scholarship about higher education on the African continent. I have closely followed the work of Drs. Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, Damtew Teferra, Jenny J. Lee, and Ane Turner Johnson for many years. These professors are part of a handful of scholars, myself included, who study postsecondary access, opportunity, and management in Africa. Moving forward, I argue that scholars in the field of higher education should be intentional about establishing and sustaining long-term research collaborations with scholars on the African continent.
This is important because African universities are incredibly innovative when it comes to research. For example, when I was doing my dissertation research as a Fulbright fellow in Ethiopia, I learned more about the prominence of the department of materials science and engineering at Jimma University and is part of the reason why this institution has become a top research school in the region. Meanwhile, Ashesi University currently hosts the Climate Innovation Centre of Ghana, which promotes climate-conscious entrepreneurialism. I also have colleagues at Arizona State University, my current institution, who are involved in an e-Learning Initiative sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation and being carried out at institutions such as the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya to make higher education more accessible using digital technologies.
Second, working with African scholars is a productive academic experience for U.S.-based students. My own doctoral and undergraduate students have worked with me on a comparative project with the University of Nairobi, University of Rwanda, and Makerere University funded by ASU’s Institution of Social Science Research. This experience helps provide a valuable learning opportunity about international project management and cross-cultural communication.
Most importantly, partnerships between U.S. and African universities can be mutually beneficial for representatives from both sides. A few years ago, I attended the HERS Leadership Institute in Kampala, Uganda, where I learned about the challenges and strategies for success that women administrators face at Makerere University. As a graduate student, I attended the African Studies Association conference in Ghana, which was a transformative experience for me because I got to engage with early career scholars from across the continent in a manuscript development workshop. When I was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Ohio State University, I learned more about the Global One Health Initiative that partners OSU with institutions in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia to advance health equity.
To be sure, working with colleges and universities in emerging market contexts can be challenging. These higher education institutions often face infrastructure and resource limitations that may complicate research collaborations. Additionally, they tend to focus on teaching as opposed to research. We would do well to remember that there are challenges to working with others in any context. However, we are equipped with enough creative ideas and research training to overcome these challenges. And as we do this, we should be conscious of the warning that Ndlovu-Gatsheni wrote about: “This marginalization of African scholarship is sustained by a deliberate uneven division of intellectual labour rooted in imperialism and colonialism, in which scholars of Africa and the rest of the Global South have been reduced to hunter-gatherers of raw data that is turned into theories in the Global North” (p. 25-26). When we think of African universities, we should view them as the innovative research partners needed to advance meaningful education research.
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