Don’t forget the islands: extending Africa’s boundaries of knowledge

Island universities are unavoidably at one with the elements. This offers rich opportunities for studying these elements - like the oceans. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Think of Africa and invariably one’s thoughts stop at the shoreline of this vast continent. But the reach of terra firma extends far out into the seas surrounding Africa. To the east and west, far too easily ignored, are scattered groups of islands.

There are universities in several of these offshore locations. Probably the smallest of these island universities is found in Seychelles. President James Michel first shared his vision of a national university in 2007 and the institution was established in 2009. The path it has forged in the past six years offers some valuable insight into why such institutions have much to add to the diversity and potential of mainland Africa.

And, with the limited resources of a small island state, the university has chosen to focus sharply on those things that really matter.

It shows that such universities don’t simply replicate the kind of subjects found elsewhere, but also speak to the unique challenge of the embracing oceans.

One university’s journey

The University of Seychelles has grown quickly – although, since the national population barely exceeds 90,000, there are obvious limits in terms of ultimate student numbers.

Establishing a university in Seychelles was never about size, though. In the past, all of the country’s young people who wanted to enter higher education had to be sent abroad. This cost the government and individual families a great deal and also prompted a brain drain to places like the UK and Australia.

Having one’s own place of higher learning cuts costs and encourages more graduates to stay in the country. This is obviously important for smaller countries, which may not be able to attract professionals from elsewhere in the world in the same way as a bigger nation. Crucially, it also creates a larger number of opportunities for local students who might otherwise take their talents and skills off the island.

The institution’s size and location in a small country have driven a hyper-local research focus. Seychelles is an ideal place in which to study the oceans, for instance. But the university’s research output doesn’t only benefit the country – it has global implications.

Research in your own backyard

Seychelles enjoys a unique environment both on land and at sea, which offers a source of new knowledge and development. Although its 115 islands cover a land area of only 454 km², the Exclusive Economic Zone extends over some 1.4 million km². That’s nearly four times the size of Germany. Little wonder that the Blue Economy has captured the attention of the university’s scholars.

At a time when the Blue Economy is now on the world agenda, the extension of traditional subjects for teaching and research surely adds to the whole continent’s knowledge base.

The very fact that we still know so little about the Indian Ocean is itself a spur to discover more about its remarkable diversity and potential wealth. One of the most encouraging facts is that other island universities in the western Indian Ocean have embarked on a similar journey and there are good examples of how we are all working together.

A prime example of collaboration in the region is the FisherMan project, involving universities in Madagascar, Comoros, Zanzibar and Mozambique, as well as Seychelles, under the auspices of the University of Alicante, Spain. The project is directed to the development of specialised degree courses in Fisheries Management.

As well as our interest in the sea there is also a commitment to the striking land features of Seychelles. Among these are granite peaks that stand more than 1000 metres tall and serve as a dramatic reminder of the ancient continental mass of Gondwanaland. The University of Seychelles has developed the Island Biodiversity Conservation Centre to focus exclusively on terrestrial species.

A living laboratory

A second way in which the rest of Africa can benefit from the work of island universities is through the special insights of Indian Ocean languages and cultures. The islands share a common history of exploration, settlement, slavery, independence and post-colonialism, resulting in a complex mix of languages, religion and national identity.

It is not uncommon, for instance, for Seychellois to be fluent in English, Creole and French – all of which are official languages.

Just as for other countries across Africa, there are painful chapters in the nation’s history. But there is also an inspiring story of recovery and reconciliation, so much so that there is an exceptional level of harmony amongst different groups. Additionally, as a sign of economic progress, Seychelles not only weathered the storms of the global financial crisis but has recently been designated by the World Bank as a high-income nation.

With such a varied modern history (compressed into the past four decades), it provides a living laboratory of successful social and economic transition.

More abstract lessons

Finally, there is the potential of islands like those of Seychelles, as distinct geographical and cultural entities, to share more abstract lessons derived from their separate experience. Students on our Environmental Science programme, for example, undertake regular vegetation surveys in the grounds of a former plantation to reveal the constant evolution of the distinctive environment.

There is something about being surrounded by the sea which brings home a sense of one’s humility, if not mortality. Even on the largest island, Mahé, there are few places where one cannot hear the waves breaking over the encircling reefs. And when high tides encroach onto nearby farmland, it is impossible to ignore the immediacy of climate change.

By contrast, in the middle of the African landmass this sense of being at the mercy of the sea, and of recognising its potential, is not always so apparent.

Therefore, in the interests of us all, don’t forget the islands. In different ways, island universities can be seen as outposts, sharing knowledge of their unique environment with the rest of Africa. Rather than simply offering more of the same they can say something that is distinctive – a product of being located far out at sea, at one with the elements.