International partnerships can be powerful tools for Africa’s universities

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discusses collaboration between the US and Senegal. International partnerships, particularly between universities, can yield great rewards. EPA

When an African university signs a memorandum of understanding, whether with a counterpart on the continent or one elsewhere in the world, there is great excitement. The university itself usually issues a statement celebrating this collaboration and glowing pieces often appear in local media.

Then the headlines taper off, enthusiasm wanes – and, far too frequently, these memorandums are left to gather dust in university management offices. They become reference material rather than the basis of productive relationships between institutions.

This is not just an African problem. The international universities that come on board as partners also battle to make the jump from signing these memos to actual activities.

But if these memorandums of understanding are properly planned, developed and put into action, they can contribute a great deal to any African university’s push for internationalisation.

An eye on the global prize

A university’s internationalisation strategy is fast becoming a tool to measure the institution’s innovation, global relevance and its potential contribution to national goals.

A good internationalisation strategy can help to develop an African university’s brand, both at home and abroad. It can also create new revenue generation schemes, which is extremely valuable at a time when institutions are facing a funding crunch.

Universities can use these memorandums of understanding and partnerships to increase their academic and research footprints on global issues. There is room for institutions to adopt global best practices when it comes to content, programmes and processes.

There are huge benefits for students, too. They are exposed to different ways of thinking through visiting academics, and opportunities to study elsewhere through exchange programmes. Postgraduates can collaborate on research with international peers. All of this ultimately prepares them to contribute to their own economies and to work anywhere in the world.

The frontrunners

Some African institutions have made great strides to take their partnerships from paper to reality. The University of Benin in Nigeria signed a binding memorandum of agreement with Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in late 2014. The institutions had started with a memorandum of understanding in 2013.

The universities have since developed a split-site PhD programme, whose first batch of students will start work at the end of 2015. They have also developed a forum that is designed to help bridge the gaps between academia and industry in Nigeria. Participants learn from the experiences of their colleagues at the Lancaster Environment Centre of Lancaster University.

Two successful meetings have already been held under this banner.

Another successful collaboration which grew from a memorandum of understanding is that between Strathmore University in Kenya and Rwanda’s University of Kigali. This focuses on regional content development. The University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria has established a postgraduate Institute of Petroleum Studies. This evolved from a collaboration between the university and the IFP School, a research institution in France.

Stumbling blocks

Conversations I have had with university administrators around the continent reveal that many lack the knowledge to bring memorandums of understanding to life.

Often, universities will sign agreements even though their new partners have totally different academic programmes, priorities and processes. This disconnect is worsened by the complex structures of all universities and the frequently fraught relationship between the administrative and academic section of institutions.

My discussions suggest that most African universities assign a lecturer or administrator – who is great at their core job – to manage memorandums of understanding once they’ve been signed. This added responsibility requires time, resources and knowledge. Too often, it falls to someone who wasn’t even involved in signing the memorandum.

International partnerships can be expensive, and it is tough for resource-poor universities in Africa to find the funding they need to get things started. Travel, conferences and exchanges all cost money.

Finally, it is worth remembering that memorandums of understanding are not usually legally binding – so it can be hard to enforce all the clauses and make sure that both parties do everything that is required of them.

Lessons from the pioneers

Here are some of things that institutions should consider when a memorandum of understanding is on the table:

  1. You need to appoint a strategic champion with the relevant skills and give them the necessary resources and time to bring this relationship to life. The most relevant attributes are resourcefulness, stakeholder management, strategic partnership insights and international outlook.

  2. Plan big but start small. Chose a low cost, high impact but simple activity – a seminar, workshop or meeting – to launch the relationship. This will give both institutions a chance to learn about each other’s systems, processes and stakeholders before investing more money in bigger initiatives.

  3. Plan for a binding memorandum of agreement while setting up the memorandum of understanding. Communicate about and agree on the phased transition from one to the other. Set up timelines, deliverables and milestones.

  4. Agree on clear roles and responsibilities. Be clear about what mutual benefits you would like to see. Start these conversations at the very beginning of the process so that the memorandum of understanding contains everything you envision.

It is also important at this point to establish exactly who will be involved, how communication should happen and what decisions need to be taken in the short term. Many of these memorandums suffer because too many or too few people get involved when the ball is already rolling.