RRI in Africa – conversations with HEI representatives from the African continent
Nadja Gmelch – Head of projects, Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP). Member of the HEIRRI Consortium. Chair of the HEIRRI Science Communication and Internationalisation Advisory Board (SCIAB) and Responsible for the Internationalisation of the HEIRRI project.
ACUP: You presented HEIRRI at the Going Global Conference that took place in Cape Town, South Africa, from 3 to 5 May 2016. How would you describe the current situation of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) at African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)?
NG: One of the goals of the HEIRRI project is to listen and learn how RRI is seen and promoted in other parts of the world. The first world region we are analysing in this context is the African continent. The participation at the first Going Global Conference ever to take place in Africa helped us to get some deeper insights on RRI in Africa, mainly in the Anglophone countries of the continent.
The different university leaders from Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa who I had a chance to talk to in Cape Town all confirmed that the impact of higher education institutions in their societies represents a major issue for their institutions as well as other universities all over the African continent. They would probably not refer to it as RRI, a concept of which most of them have not heard of before, but as socially relevant research. Taking into account that the research produced at the majority of their institutions is applied research, the relationship with society plays a crucial role that many of them try to promote in different ways.
ACUP: Could you share with us some specific examples?
NG: The Open University of Zimbabwe is currently commissioning a report in order to analyse the impact in society of all the research undertaken by the institution in the past years. Ndaizieny Irene Nyamakura, from the Vice Chancellor’s Office, stressed the special contact her institution has with different local communities thanks to the distance learning model which allows them to reach out to remote areas and enables them to establish direct contacts with these.
In South Africa, the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) represents four universities from the Western Cape region, and it acts as a facilitator to promote contact between its member universities and the regional government through an annual call for proposals on research related to the development priorities in the region. Nevertheless, Nasima Badsha, Chief Executive Officer of CHEC, stated that there is an ongoing debate about the recognition of research in support for development priorities and the need for mainstreaming this kind of research into the main research of universities.
Abdullahi Ribadu, Vice Chancellor of Sule Lamido University in Nigeria, has a very clear vision: social impact and relevance of universities is part of their core university mandate. In the case of his university, interaction with the local communities is guaranteed through the regular organisation of forums with representatives from these communities, mainly represented through the local authorities, where they debate the most pressing issues of their communities to which university then tries to give response.
As these examples show, socially relevant research is an important issue for many HEIs in Africa. However, talking about RRI might reduce the discussion as this concept is still very little known in African universities. On behalf of HEIRRI we would be happy to continue this discussion and to learn more about RRI in Africa.