South Africa-France Research Week opens possibilities for stronger research collaboration between the two nations

Published On: 12 August 2022|

The recently concluded France-South Africa Higher Education and Research Week yielded promising outcomes, given the high level of interest from both participating countries, the packed agenda and the recommendations made for ongoing mutual collaboration between French and South African universities in the future.

Organised by the French Embassy in South Africa in collaboration with Campus France, the event was dedicated to the promotion of South African higher education and research enterprise amongst France’s interested higher education institutions. The Week, from the 27th of June to the 2nd of July, took the format of a series of meetings, workshops and guided tours to carefully selected sites, all in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the PROTEA joint research programme between South Africa and France. The PROTEA programme, implemented by the National Research Foundation (NRF), is afinancial facility supporting the mobility and training of researchers, contributing to the development of new partnerships and strengthening advanced scientific and technological exchanges between research institutions in South Africa and France.

South Africa’s 93-strong delegation, led by Professor Francis Petersen, Deputy Chair of Universities South Africa (USAf) and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State, comprised representatives of 23 public universities, mostly deputy vice-chancellors including six vice-chancellors. Other members of the delegation were the chief executive officers of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the NRF and the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). Also participating in the event were the Ambassador of France to South Africa and of South Africa to France, senior officials from Universities South Africa (USAf) and the departments of Science and Technology (DSI) and Higher Education and Training (DHET).

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As part of setting the scene, South Africa’s five-member panel led the discussion describing the country’s Higher Education and Research Landscape and South Africa’s priorities for collaborating with universities in France. The panel comprised (from left) Dr Linda Meyer, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support; Dr Whitfield Green, CHE’s Chief Executive Officer; Ms Eudy Mabuza, DSI’s senior representative; Ms Prudence Makhura, a director from the NRF and Dr Thandi Mkgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University.

They took the conference through South Africa’s national policy and legislative framework for higher education, described the 26 public universities by type, and shared the key aspirations of the Department of Science and Innovation’s Decadal Plan and the Department of Higher Education and Training’s National Plan for Post-School Education and Training. That session also unpacked the role of the NRF in supporting and building partnerships for the National System of Innovation. For a case study, the panel presented Nelson Mandela University’s approach to Internationalisation.

During this introductory session, Universities South Africa’s Director: Operations and Sector Support, Dr Linda Meyer, went on to introduce USAf and explained its mandate within the higher education sector and the key facts and statistics regarding South Africa’s higher education system, including enrolments and throughput rates. She also acknowledged the contribution of private higher education providers in the sector.

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In turn, France also presented its facts and figures, and spoke about renewal prospects regarding cooperation mechanisms already existing with African partners. Further to facilitating mutual understanding of how universities from both countries are governed, and sharing possible ways to manage challenges, the ice breaker session also focused on the roles of government, university councils and executives in higher education. It highlighted the unique challenges and the importance of universities’ autonomy and academic freedom.

Key issues addressed included student mobility, transformative partnerships and, in particular, the importance of focussing on co-creation in partnerships and mutual understanding of the different contexts in which South Africa’s and French universities operate. The two nations looked at the challenges confronting existing partnerships, such as the incompatible academic years which can pose a challenge for mobility and possibly hamper efforts to strengthen the existing partnerships. A concern was raised over the tendency for prominent universities and corporations to primarily focus on existing partnerships, thus limiting new institutions from entering the mix.

The National Research Foundation used this opportunity to launch the PROTEA PLUS Programme, an expansion of the existing programme with a new research focus on the Ecological Connectivity of Marine Protected Areas in the SouthWest Indian Ocean (ECO-SWIO). The NRF said it would announce the call for research proposals in October 2022.

During this ice breaker, French and South African universities got to speed-date, one-on-one, exploring collaboration and forging new partnerships while identifying opportunities to strengthen existing relationships.

Guided tours unearth more collaboration opportunities

As part of their itinerary in France, the delegates were taken on guided tours of selected institutions and cultural sites in and on the outskirts of Paris. These included a visit, by senior leaders of the delegation, to the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, where they explored collaborations with this institution, focusing on Humanities and Social Sciences.

During a visit to the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, a panel led discussions on Higher Education and Research: dynamics, challenges and prospects. This panel comprised the Deputy Head of the Department for Strategy, Expertise and Management of International Programmes in the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, Mr Olivier Steffen; French Ambassador to South Africa, His Excellency Mr Aurèlien Lechevallier, South Africa’s Ambassador to France, His Excellency Mr Tebogo Seokolo, and South Africa’s CEOs of the CHE and the NRF, Dr Whitfield Green and Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, respectively.

This was where France highlighted her desire to renew cooperation with Africa in the context of her new strategy for human capacity development for research, with a focus on post-doctoral fellows. France is set to create more career opportunities for postdocs, recognising their contribution to the System of Innovation and their value in nurturing emerging researchers while also acknowledging that there are not enough faculty positions for postdocs.

From South Africa’s perspective, the CHE and NRF CEOs discussed universities’ role in research and development. They underlined the importance of increasing the use of technology in supporting research and innovation development.

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While the South Africa-France Research Week was hosted, on Days One, Two and Four, in Paris, for engagements on the Euro-African Scientific Partnership in the framework of the French Presidency of the European Union Council, South Africa’s six attending Vice-Chancellors got to be hosted (on Day Three) by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Research Institute for Development (IRD) in Brussels (above), Belgium. The fifth and last day took the full party to the University of Montpellier.

The full delegation also had engagements with industry partners such as Schneider Electrics on more perspectives for cooperation with South African universities. Against the backdrop of existing relations with four of South Africa’s institutions, namely the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, all parties explored an integrated approach to the coordination of postgraduate engagement and research.

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These guided tours culminated in a visit to the University of Montpellier (above), an epitome of a city university embedded in its locality. From the University President, the Vice-President responsible for Partnerships and Innovation, another Vice-President overseeing Education and yet another of International Affairs, the delegates heard Montpellier’s narrative on Uniting Higher Education and Research. They were given a glimpse into the University’s Feed-Care-Protect project and a sneak peek into the Montpellier hub and Europe-Africa portal.

Reciprocally, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Pretoria presented their perspectives on science communities’ role in cooperation in sustainable development. Wits University got to present alongside French institutions on building global collective expertise on the links between the environment, health and food. The University of the Free State and Walter Sisulu University also showcased how a university in the city can drive sustainable development. The visit to Montpellier culminated in the delegation being given a tour of the institution and its selected laboratories.

Ultimately, Euro-African scientific partnerships in the framework of the French Presidency of the European Union Council are exploring joint degree programmes and mutual recognition of such qualifications by France and South Africa within the two countries’ existing internationalisation policy framework. They are looking to strengthen existing partnerships with Africa in areas such as Critical Mass, Support for Emerging Researchers, Transfer of Technology and tangible other mechanisms to promote cooperation.

Regarding global sustainable development, French and South African universities concur on the importance of fostering equitable global partnerships with particular sensitivity to the legacy created by colonialism. They both want to ensure that:

  • universities prioritise collaboration over competition — especially in Africa;
  • universities promote trans-disciplinary research; and that
  • research influences policy.

French and South African universities are cognisant of the power dynamics between natural and social sciences and are looking to promote leadership, science diplomacy, and institutional engagements.

While in France, USAf, through its Higher Education Leadership and Management programme’s Senior Manager: Student Success, investigated collaboration with the European University College Association (EucA). EucA currently runs student programmes focusing on developing soft skills, employability, youth unemployment, public speaking, and coaching, all of which link directly with what HELM aims to achieve through its GeNex programme in development. South Africa’s higher education sector acknowledge the need to develop student leadership, citizenship and entrepreneurship. The GeNex programme is a response to this call and aims to equip higher education student leadership in and for South Africa and Africa. It will be embedded in the African context and reflect the dynamic relationship of leadership with context, focussing on leadership, citizenship and employability within a social justice framework.

By the end of the South Africa-France Research Week, it became apparent that USAf has a role to play in fostering the South Africa-France universities relations, including but not limited to central coordination of similar future visits to extend opportunities to the less resourced and less-partnered institutions; the development of an action plan in collaboration with its member institutions towards implementing what was agreed in France; advocacy with policymakers in the way that USAf is already working with the DSI and DHET; working towards a different model of collaboration governance and developing a collaboration partnership with EucA for HELM’s advancement in Student Success.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication