Report on AAUN Africa Forum held at the University of Mpumalanga (UMP), South Africa

The University of Mpumalanga (UMP) recently hosted the Australia-Africa Universities Network (AAUN) Africa Forum, bringing together academia, policymakers, and experts to examine how African and Australian Higher Education systems are transitioning and contributing towards achieving sustainability.

The AAUN Africa Forum addressed pressing sustainable development issues and the pivotal role of higher education, under the theme “Sustainable Development in Action: The 2030 Horizon and the Role of Higher Education,” to explore the transitions and contributions of African and Australian higher education systems toward achieving sustainability.

UMP Vice-Chancellor, Professor Thoko Mayekiso, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to host such a significant event, also as a new member of the AAUN..

“We are appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to participate in the network. It is encouraging to note that the highlight of this year’s Forum is the formalisation of the Early Career Researcher Network of the AAUN. This is evidence of the network’s commitment to building the next generation of researchers. There is a clear alignment between the theme of this conference and the strategic direction of our institution,” she said. The continued support from the National Research Foundation, and the Department of Science and Innovation in South Africa, was gratefully acknowledged, represented by Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Group Executive, and Ms Anneline Morgan, Chief Director, respectively.

Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Ms Jenny Da Rin, shed light on the increasing number of African students choosing Australia for higher education, indicating a growing partnership between the two continents. This trend underscores the importance of collaborative efforts in advancing education and mutual development.

“For the first time, Kenya is among the top 20 sources of international students, and the demand continues to grow. So, it’s up to all of us, the government, and new universities to build on the goodwill and shared enthusiasm to co-create an Australia Africa Education Network that keeps delivering. As leaders and custodians of the Australia-Africa education relationship, you have the power to shape the future and that will have important impacts not just for the relationship, but for our collective development,” she said.

Discussing the evolution of progress and the current state of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the context of higher education, Dr Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa from the University of Pretoria, said collaboration between scientists and policymakers is crucial for achieving sustainable development goals, and further emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in achieving the SDGs, calling for closer collaboration between different stakeholders.

Top on the agenda was prioritizing networks for research and collaboration.

“In Africa, the SDG framework has been adopted in various countries, and there is a growing emphasis on transdisciplinary science policy. However, course corrections are needed in implementing the SDGs,” said Dr Hackmann.

Talks on the implications of Africa-Australia relations for sustainable development highlighted key challenges such as poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation, and emphasized the importance of strengthening partnerships and collaboration, particularly in areas such as science, technology, and policy.

Reflecting on the 12 years of the AAUN were Prof Cheryl de la Rey (AAUN Co-founder: former Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Pretoria) and Prof John Hearn (AAUN Co-founder: former DVC International University of Sydney), celebrating the original intent of the network to focus on internationalization in African universities since there were concerns of skills shortage and local impact.

“The co-chairpersonship was established to promote mutual benefit and equity in partnership, transparency, accountability, and impact of projects between Africa and Australia,” explained Prof de la Rey.

Some discussions focused on research climate changes that align with Africa’s needs.

The Vice-Chancellor’s discussion on Partnerships in Action, emphasized the importance of prioritizing networks for research and collaboration, addressing the SDGs and regional trade agreements, and leveraging partnerships for economic development. Some of the actions proposed include:

  • Training a critical mass of PhDs across Africa
  • Bringing together stakeholders for Africa’s development
  • Initiating supervision arrangements leveraging Australia’s expertise
  • Focus on research climate changes that align with Africa’s needs
  • Improving bean crop yield and taste through research collaboration.

Summarizing the levers for transformative change, Prof Aldo Stroebel highlighted the need for increased focus and integration, advocating for a deeper understanding of systems thinking and analysis to effectively address the complexity of SDGs, underlining the relevance of the “5 Ps” framework as a base for actionable transformations within the university network’s future endeavours (People. Planet, Peace, Prosperity, Partnerships).

“If we want to be effective, we need an understanding of systems thinking and systems analysis for broader picture action. As we delve deeper into the levers for change for fundamental transformation, the so-called 5 Ps remain highly relevant. It is an informal construct to try and delineate the complexity of the numerous goals and objectives of the SDGs, but it brings an understandability to this complexity, and this is the base aspect of arguments that we can easily focus our transformations on as a university network going forward,” he said.

The two-day discussions culminated in proposals for concrete actions to accelerate transformative change and enhance impact.

The two-day discussions culminated in proposals for concrete actions to accelerate transformative change and enhance impact. The discussions assessed progress and identified potential pathways for transformative change and impact in alignment with the remaining six years of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Their pioneering work of new practices, and their education of future generations, are giving sustainable universities a special ability to create and influence change.

The Forum concluded with talks of strengthening Africa-Australia relations by forming collaborations on science and technology, hosting student exchanges such as the Erasmus programmes, establishing research collaborations and staff exchange frameworks, setting up an advisory group in Africa, and involving diverse voices and diaspora communities to raise the profile of Africa in Australia.

New leadership was elected during the Forum, and Prof Aldo Stroebel, DVC RII at UMP, and Prof Barnabas Nawange, VC Makerere University, were elected as the new Africa Co-Chairperson and Deputy Co-Chairperson respectively.

The next Africa Forum will be hosted by the University of Rwanda during May 2025.