Local and Global: From Small Island States to the World – AAUN Africa Forum 22-23 July 2019 Summary Report

The Australia Africa Universities Network (AAUN) Africa Forum and AGM, was held in Mauritius on 22 and 23 July 2019. Hosted by the University of Mauritius, the Forum was attended by almost 100 experts from Africa and Australia, representing academia, government and industry. The Forum considered how the AAUN can contribute towards advancing higher education and research, learning and training against the backdrop of an international policy framework that includes the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the UN Paris Climate Accords (COP), the AU Africa 2063, and diverse national policies.

With a strong focus on the Indian Ocean Rim, the theme of this year’s AAUN Africa Forum was “From Small Island States to the World”.

The event started with a welcome reception hosted by Her Excellency Jenny Dee, Australian High Commissioner to Mauritius, on 21 July attended by the Hon Mahen Kumar Seeruttun, Minister of Agro Industry and Food Security.

The first day of the forum consisted of four sessions, namely:

Opening Session 1: Teamwork Time: International Engagement, Partners and Networks

Session 2: Local and Global – The Blue Economy: Regional Opportunities and Demand

Session 3: Australia Africa Teamwork – Priority Research/Education Areas for Impact

Session 4: Instruments for Implementation – What works and What Does not?

The discussion on Day 1 was further enriched by a Round Table Meeting “Networking the Networks” over the lunch break. Participating networks included:

  • The Australia Africa Universities Network (AAUN)
  • The World Universities Network (WUN)
  • Education for Sustainable Development in Africa (ESDA)
  • The Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET)
  • Alliance for African Partnership (AAP)
  • The Institute of African Research Universities (IARU)

The second day of the Forum consisted of two concurrent Joint AAUN Research Workshops, namely:

  • Digital Technologies; and
  • Food Security and Nutrition: Technological Innovation for SMEs. 
Highlights of the two days

Day 1

Opening Session 1: Teamwork Time: International Engagement, Partners and Networks

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, Prof Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria and Prof John Hearn, Co-Chair of the AAUN Australia made welcoming remarks. The value of networks, in particular for transdisciplinary research to address global issues, but with local relevance, was emphasized. A key sentiment expressed was that “Knowledge knows no borders”.

The Honourable Mrs Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun, Minister of Education and Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research, Mauritius, highlighted the consensus around key priorities for Mauritius in its collaboration with the rest of Africa and Australia. These priorities are captured in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the UP-Paris Climate Accord and the Africa 2063 strategy.

The Minister noted the importance of networks to unlock synergies and plug capacity gaps through intra-regional and international collaboration. In this respect, Mauritius is cultivating a mind set geared towards regional integration and innovation. To support this, it would be necessary to build a new generation of leaders that is highly capable and conversant with international policy. A community of practice has been established in the form of the Forum of African Ministers of Education, which met in Nairobi in 2017. The Minister emphasized the role of non-traditional forms of learning (e.g., through open education resources) for reaching SDG 4.

The Minister furthermore introduced attendees to the Mauritius Africa Scholarship Scheme.

Also in the opening session, Prof Jhurry presented an overview of the vision and mission of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) on behalf of its Secretary General, Dr Joanna Newmann.

The panellists and discussants observed networks from different perspectives (e.g. that of a grant funding agency and of a diplomatic mission) and considered how networks could be harnessed to address local and international challenges and harness education, research and innovation for economic development.

Session 2: Local and Global – The Blue Economy: Regional Opportunities and Demand

The Blue Economy was defined as the sustainable use of ocean resources for improved livelihoods. The various speakers highlighted the many linked and interdependent considerations that have to keep in mind in developing the Blue Economy. A concrete example of one such consideration, namely that of sound in the ocean, was presented. The important role of scientists, working in multi-disciplinary teams, in informing the Blue Economy was acknowledged. In particular, there was a need to address the paucity of data to inform Blue Economy developments. This can be done with the help of local communities using innovative technology applications. The protection of biodiversity was highlighted as of particular importance, as was developing Blue Economy opportunities in such a manner that local communities benefit from it and that their livelihoods are protected. In this regard, law and governance arrangements that protect the rights of local communities play a key role.

With its 22 member states, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) plays a vital role in inter-governmental information sharing around the Blue Economy.

Session 3: Australia Africa Teamwork – Priority Research/Education Areas for Impact

In this session, the notion of knowledge being created in the developed world and transferred to the developing world, was rejected. The strong growth trajectory of research produced by African scholars was acknowledged, as was the need for research to focus on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Murdoch University announced the imminent launch of the Australian National Phenome Centre, which will spearhead worldwide collaborative research on the microbiome, with a strong focus on indigenous knowledge. There is an opportunity for the establishment of a node to facilitate collaboration with researchers in Africa.

The need for the development of diverse and inclusive leadership at all university levels was emphasized. This could be achieved through intensive mentorship programmes. More studies need to be done on leadership in Higher Education, especially in Africa.

Research on social determinants of health was used as an example to illustrate the importance of community participation in research. Building on the topic of health research, the Research Fairness Initiative (RFI) of the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) has been found to be a useful tool by some universities and was now being rolled out globally.

The point was made that it is important to involve students and early career researchers (i.e the youth) when determining research and education priorities. Furthermore, a mechanism has to be devised to determine the social and economic benefits of “research for development”.

In the discussion the role of universities in achieving social change by informing national health campaigns/messages was highlighted.

Session 4: Instruments for Implementation – What Works and What Does Not?

During this session, it was acknowledged that none of the SDGs can be achieved without education and applied collaborative research. For this reason, it is important to identify what works in terms of research collaboration. Experience at the University of Pretoria showed that high-impact research that is well funded and involves leading scholars has the best chance of success. Research partners have to trust each other and share a common interest. Members were introduced to the Future Africa facility and institute at the University of Pretoria.

Issues impacting Australia-Africa research relations were considered, in particular in light of the Australian government’s focus on Asia rather than Africa. Nonetheless, several Australian universities have established platforms for engagement with Africa. DFAT will host a “Why Africa” discussion in Perth before the Africa Down Under conference early in September.

The changing role of universities was acknowledged – whereas universities were still producing human capital to address societal needs, they were now also global connectors, entrepreneurial and engaged with business and civic society. Information was shared on entrepreneurship and commercialisation activities initiated by the University of Adelaide.

Thoughts were shared on ways in which universities can build programmes that cut across all the institution’s core activities and support strategic objectives while furthering the personal career paths of researchers.

Finally, the work done by the Mauritian Research Council to support and promote commercialisation was presented.

Round Table Meeting “Networking the Networks”

The aim of this session was to align different university networks in Africa with varying visions and agendas to ensure collective responsibility in tackling the sustainable development needs of the continent. As next step, it was agreed that a collaborative research project should be commissioned to identify areas key African university networks are working on, value being created by this work and opportunities for networking these networks. To prepare for such research, it was agreed that a meeting should be convened by selected university networks to discuss aspects of this possible research and other options for collaboration.

In conclusion,
 Prof Kupe remarked that there was no alternative but to collaborate. The substance of such collaboration was more important than the systems and structures. Prof Jhurry added that the crux of collaboration should be to determine what it is that we can do together that we cannot do alone. There was unanimous agreement that the focus should be on the SDGs. Pertinent questions arose from the discussion. These include:

  • How do we engage in bridging the skills gap?
  • How do we engage in design thinking and innovation, which brings us closer to industry?
  • How do Universities engage in Industry 4.0?
  • How do we ensure the quality of research?
  • Is there an immediate need to review the PhD programme?

The idea of building consortia of universities around impactful research was strongly supported.

Forum Dinner

The Forum Dinner held in the evening of 22 July was attended by some 100 participants and invited guests.

Day 2

Joint AAUN Research Workshop: Digital Technologies

The speakers and panelists in this workshop combined academic and industry interests. The two keynote speakers focused respectively on how universities can convert threats related to the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) into opportunities, the Industry 4.0 mindset and the changing nature of work. The relevance of universities in the digital era and the importance of partnerships with the private sector were stressed. The five panelists described key projects and cases from within their own contexts. Innovative concepts emerged from the discussion, including the notion that Creativity 1.0 will replace Industry 4.0 and questions around the nature of Society 5.0. It was suggested that the University of Mauritius should convene a forum for discussion of the latter.

In conclusion, the Chairperson highlighted the leadership role to be played by universities in the development of a so-called “ecosystem of disruption”. From that, the need for closer ties between universities, government and the private sector becomes more obvious – the triple helix model. However in so doing a number of ethical issues have to be addressed, as highlighted by the different speakers. After the workshop, there were preliminary discussions around joint research projects by some of the attendees. These proposals are to be formalized and submitted for funding, possibly from the AAUN Partnership and Research Development Fund (PRDF).

Joint AAUN Research Workshop: Food Security and Nutrition – Technological Innovation for SMEs

The workshop brought together stakeholders from diverse backgrounds including scientists, national experts from relevant Ministries and parastatal bodies, policy makers, academia, youth, SMEs, private sector representatives and NGOs to discuss food and nutrition security in a “World Café” format.

In conclusion, the participants indicated that technological innovation across the value chain of the agri-food sector is important for quality and safety of food and this will promote entrepreneurship. Technological innovation should be driven by end users, feasibility and sustainability. Training and capacity development are also important for technological innovation.

The organisers and the table hosts plan to write a paper based on the discussion during the workshop as well as a funding application for a transdisciplinary project based on technological innovation. The organisers thanked AAUN, the University of Mauritius, University of Pretoria and the participants for the workshop.

Acknowledgement of Conference Sponsors

National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa

University of Mauritius Trust

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

Tertiary Education Commission, Mauritius

La Pirogue Hotel

Nestlé (Mauritius)

Program and background papers

View/download the programme

View/download the participant biographies