Co-Chair farewelled but says founding principles live on

The Australia Africa Universities Network (AAUN) has farewelled its Co-Chair for Africa confident that the network’s leadership model has worked well and will continue to ensure its equal partners can address mutual challenges.

On August 27, at its annual forum in Perth, retiring Co-Chair Professor Cheryl de la Rey said that since AAUN was established in 2012 its founding principles of equality and mutuality had been realised in many meaningful ways.

Central among them was building 43 higher education and research partnerships and programs, and 43 communities of scholars, in just six years.

“We’re very proud of the number of projects that have been initiated under the AAUN – and particularly the projects that have focused on agriculture and food security have been of vital importance to us as an African region as we have worked with Australia.”

AAUN Co-Chair for Australia, Professor John Hearn, thanked Professor de la Rey for her contribution as a founding Co-Chair of AAUN, and congratulated her on her appointment as the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand – which also has major links with Africa.

For the last nine years, Professor de la Rey has served as the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) South Africa, building UP’s excellence and strengthening its influence in African networks involved in the environment, mining, food security and engineering, and linking across Africa and internationally.

She has also been Vice-Chair of the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (one of AAUN’s knowledge partners) and a member of many other boards as a leading African academic.

Professor de la Rey said AAUN’s future success would depend on demonstrable impact, and on ensuring that seed funding could catalyse projects which could in turn leverage further funding.

A notable success in this respect was Professor Hettie Schönfeldt (UP). She received a Partnership and Research Development Fund grant from AAUN in 2016 to research food composition data for animal-source foods in sub-Saharan Africa.

In June this year, Professor Schönfeldt was awarded a national research chair in Nutrition and Food Security – a prestigious award in South Africa.

In a competitive process, run by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), she was also awarded the Directorship of the new ARUA Centre of Excellence for Food Security led by the University of Pretoria in collaboration with the University of Nairobi and the University of Ghana.

“This is a good example of how a small grant intended to catalyse something bigger beyond the initial project has done precisely that,” said Professor de la Rey.

Investing in the next generation

AAUN Forum participants watched on as Professor de la Rey and Professor Dawn Freshwater, Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (UWA), signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between UP and UWA. The MoU aims to enhance collaboration in research and postgraduate teaching, and promote student exchanges.

“Investing in the next generation of academics is a priority for South Africa and all African members of AAUN,” said Professor de la Rey, “and we’re delighted to be working with WA on this very important issue.

“We’d like to develop a critical mass of expertise in the areas that matter most to African development, and I think working with UWA we’re well positioned to achieve this goal.”

Professor Freshwater also announced UWA’s new Africa Research and Engagement Centre (AfREC), which she said would “enable the university to draw upon the knowledge and expertise of our growing Africa Australia communities to drive innovation and ethical partnerships”.

AfREC will be directed by Dr David Mickler (UWA), and through its research, teaching, training and public engagement programs, it will support the foundational work of networks like AAUN.

Professor Frans Swanepoel (UP) will succeed Professor de la Rey as Interim Co-Chair of AAUN and UP will continue to host the AAUN African Secretariat. This arrangement will be reassessed by AAUN’s Steering Groups when the new Vice Chancellor for UP is in place.