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EUA held an official pre-event to the European Union-African Union Summit to explore the role of regional and interregional approaches for improving higher education systems on 10 February in collaboration with OBREAL Global.

In the run-up to the summit, the event provided an opportunity to strengthen ongoing higher education sector dialogue and cooperation within and between Africa and Europe and to highlight the need to go further. The event was attended by major European and African stakeholder organisations, including the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Inter-University Council for East Africa, quality assurance agencies from Egypt and South Africa, ENIC-NARICs, the German Academic Exchange Service, the European Commission’s representatives from DG Education and Culture and DG International Partnership, the African Union (AU) and the Coordination Group on Global Policy Dialogue of the Bologna Process.

The EUA-OBREAL Global event provided an insight into the dynamics of regional higher education reform processes – in Europe under the Bologna Process and the European education and research areas, and in Africa, under Pan African initiatives supported by the AU and via regional initiatives, such as the Common Higher Education Area of the East African Community, with its own quality assurance system and qualifications framework. Synergies and some alignment between these parallel processes taking place in the same region can be useful for their internal coherence, but also for building international links. One clear difference is the quest for harmonisation on the African side, whereas European higher education appears more as a collection of different education systems, based on common principles and bridged by convergence processes and shared instruments. The importance of decolonisation, emphasised by several of the African speakers, is something which the renewed Africa-EU partnership will need to take into account.

In two sessions dedicated to the feasibility and impact of African and European regional quality assurance and recognition processes, participants stressed the importance of supporting policies and structures to ensure that regional instruments are properly implemented.

Building trust was frequently mentioned as a condition for stronger exchange and collaboration within and between higher education regions, however this cannot just be a moral imperative. Adequate levels of institutional autonomy and funding are needed as well as measures to shield institutions and systems from the negative impact of internationalisation, such as the risk of brain drain, and to facilitate more balanced exchanges.

Similar points were made at a discussion on students’ expectations, hopes and criticism of the summit held on 15 February. It was organised by the All-African Student Union (AASU), the European Student Union, (ESU) and the Global Student Forum with EUA invited to contribute.

In her keynote speech, Themis Christophidou, Director General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, highlighted growing EU investment in African and African-EU higher education collaboration. Student representatives expressed their concern about an unequal partnership and the impact of trade policies on higher education. Other key concerns they raised included transnational education provision, the risks and limitations posed by digitalisation, data privacy, technology lock-in and the lack of frameworks for open research and education. These are clearly areas where student and university associations could usefully share information and work together.

The resulting final declaration of the EU-AU Summit confirms higher education and research as areas of investment and joint action under the Erasmus+ programme and via “a joint AU-EU innovation agenda”. It also specifically mentions the need to promote vocational education and training.

There are clearly opportunities for joint Africa-EU action on the wider global challenges including digitalisation, sustainability and fighting climate change. As EUA pointed out in a recent statement on the EU’s Green Deal, these agendas require a meaningful involvement of universities and research institutions around the world.

Watch the recording of the EUA-OBREAL Global event

Read the AU-EU joint declaration

How EUA is working with African partners

EUA has been working with African partners on various projects and forms of cooperation for more than a decade. There has been a strong emphasis on quality assurance – as a means of institutional development, but also at system level and in the process of regional convergence of African higher education, with the 2019 launch of African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance under the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation Initiative. During 2008-2010, EUA collaborated with partners including AAU, ESU and the AASU on the Access to Success Project on access and retention issues in higher education in Africa and Europe. The project produced a White Paper many of whose findings remain relevant today.

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