AAUN’s Australian Forum shapes priorities for teamwork, research and impact

The post-Covid resurgence of theAustralia Africa Universities Network (AAUN) is well underway thanks to the network’s successful forum held in Perth from 4-5 September.

Co-hosted by Curtin University the on-campus forum, held during Australia Africa Week (3- 8 September), attracted 80 participants from academia, government, business and the diplomatic corps from across Africa, Australia and the Indo-Pacific whose expert input and lively discussion helped refine the network’s rationale and priorities for its post-Covid reemergence in research, education and mobility.

Following a moving Welcome to Country by Whadjuk Noongar elder, Nick Abraham, the Hon. Ayor Makor Chuot, MLC – who is the state’s first MP of African descent and the first person from a South Sudanese background to occupy a seat in any Australian Parliament – welcomed forum participants to Western Australia.

Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice Chancellor of Curtin University, said she was pleased her university could again co-host the AAUN forum.

“The AAUN has been extraordinarily resourceful in performing a critical networking and leadership role and in building equal partnerships and mutually beneficial academic collaboration between our two countries across the Indian Ocean.

“Last time we hosted AAUN’s Australian forum we were still emerging from Covid-19, so it is wonderful to see the group back here in full swing in 2023 with such a large, high-level delegation from Africa, as well as our many distinguished colleagues who are joining us from Australia’s Eastern states.”

Prof Hayne said she’d had the pleasure of attending AAUN’s Africa forum hosted by the University of Pretoria in May where she’d launched Curtin University’s Centre for Australia Africa Relations, which was a “key academic node” to support the work of the AAUN and wider Australia-Africa relationships.

Forum participants were also introduced to the new director of Murdoch University’s recently launched Indo-Pacific Research Centre, Professor Jacqueline Lo,who affirmed Murdoch’s commitment to building stronger relationships with its African partners.

Executive Co-Chair of AAUN (Australia), Professor John Hearn, said the forum theme of “Australia Africa Knowledge Teamwork: Policies, Priorities, People”  had drawn excellent insights from participants about how to strengthen the network’s impact in coming years and build on its extensive suite of research projects.

Forum sessions (held on September 4) focused on five key areas to help shape AAUN’s future endeavours:

  • Teamwork Time: Policies and opportunities 2023-25 (Session 1)
  • The role of AAUN and Universities in deepening Australia Africa cooperation (Session 2)
  • Global Entrepreneurial Universities: Insights from the AAUN (Session 3)
  • Education, research and innovation synergies across AAUN and regions (Session 4)
  • AAUN – University initiatives to engage academics, students, communities (Session 5)

Research workshops (held on September 5) explored four topics:

  • Scientific Diaspora Diplomacy
  • Energy Transition
  • One Health
  • Food Systems and Nutrition

Inaugural ELAAD success

Forum participants were delighted to hear of the success of the inaugural Emerging Leaders in Australia-Africa Diplomacy (ELAAD) program, which brought together 36 postgraduate students and junior and mid-career diplomats from 14 countries, and ran from November 2022 to June 2023.

ELAAD is a recent initiative of AAUN led by Curtin University in Western Australia, convened by Dr David Mickler, that enables emerging leaders from Australia and Africa to meet online to network and develop new ideas for how Australia and African countries could tackle common challenges.

A forum dinner featured a keynote lecture and panel discussion on “African Perspectives on the Indo-Pacific”. The dinner was co-hosted by AAUN; the Centre for Australia-Africa Relations, Curtin University; and the Australian Institute of International Affairs WA.

Professor Christopher Isike,Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Pretoria, who gave the keynote address, said despite Africa’s geographic, strategic and maritime connections with Indo-Pacific, it remains marginalised and largely excluded from the regional framework and discourses on the Indo-Pacific.

“The question I want to ask is whether Africa really wants to be part of the Indo-Pacific and, if yes, how much is it doing to be part of it?”

Shaping a practical plan

Professor Hearn thanked Professor Frans Swanepoel, Director of International Strategic Partnerships at the University of Pretoria, for stepping in as Interim AAUN Co-Chair, Africa, following Professor Tawana Kupe’s resignation from the position in July 2023.

Professor Swanepoel said the Perth forum followed a successful AAUN Africa Forum held on 22 May at the University of Pretoria, which had explored ways that selected strategic partnerships can address large, complex problems and deliver impact through teamwork.

During the Australian forum’s closing proceedings, Professor Swanepoel said several priorities for the network had emerged over the day for him.

They included:

  • Revitalising AAUN’s Partnership and Research Development Fund (PRDF) –using successful examples of PRDF project to lobby governments and others for additional funding.
  • Serious consideration of an undergraduate level global class / AAUN class.
  • Membership – identifying potential new university members that may have an interest in joining the network.

Professor Hearn said forum outcomes would help shape a practical plan that the Australian Government and others could support and which would build on the innovative research programs AAUN had catalysed in the past, through shared knowledge, equal partnership and impact for development.

He said the board had agreed in principle for the African and Australian steering groups to each propose three PRDF projects with the aim of funding six new projects in 2024. The call for applications would be in March 2024, closing date 30 June, and funding date next year’s AGM (date TBC).

An assessment exercise in 2022 had shown that, while universities who have engaged in AAUN’s PRDF projects put in significant resources – including the small AAUN subscription, staff time and other resources – mostly their investment “feeds back five times as much as is put in”.

Prof Hearn said that, on the world stage, in terms of continuing close relationships between Africa and Australia, “We’ve seen it wax and wane. And we’ve definitely got to build it up again.”