African universities take the lead in climate change

A new regional climate change master’s degree highlights the power of collaboration and puts African universities where they belong: at the forefront of social and economic development, writes PIYUSHI KOTECHA.

In the United Kingdom and United States, much of the news about universities and climate change is centered on fossil fuel disinvestment. In May it was reported that for the second year in a row, the University of California ranked highest in the Global Climate 500 index among universities incorporating climate change risks in their investment decision-making. Divestment means selling off endowment and pension fund holdings in fossil fuels in favour of more ethical investments, arguably contributing to a weakening of the fossil-fuel industry.

Climate change debates in the developing world’s universities are different. Only a handful of African universities have endowment funds, and even those are extremely modest by international standards. Over the fossil fuel industry, or any other industry for that matter, our universities exercise little economic leverage. In addition, the inter-institutional competition that inheres in the concept of a top 500 index in many ways contradicts the spirit of regionalism that bodies like the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) are trying to foster.

But this does not mean that African universities have no power. The fight for sustainability must of necessity be waged on multiple platforms. In addition to what essentially constitute negative interventions represented by the divestment campaign, the quest for sustainability must include proactive and positive human-centered interventions. This is where African universities come in – as producers of human capacity.

We know that Africa as a continent is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Despite recent positive developments to reduce this vulnerability, it is also poorly equipped to deal with the threats of climate change. These are not only future threats. Already, Africa cannot escape the impact of past emissions: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Working Group II Report estimates that Africa will experience adaptation costs of between US$20 billion and US$30 billion a year over the next decade, up to US$60 billion a year by 2030. Given a range of uncertainties in the planning scenario, these are likely to be under-estimates.

There can be few more pressing issues around which to rally as a regional academic community. As our regional capacity study has shown, for southern African countries, climate change represents a shared threat as well as a knowledge gap. As a spokesperson for the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture said about his country’s needs: “We need specialists trained on climate change issues, adaptation and mitigation in each and every ministry or organisation. Universities need to introduce programmes on climate change, long term or short term, in order to capacitate communities. Communities must be well informed on issues of climate change and survival skills”.

Universities are currently our best hope for creating the human capacity needed to deal with climate change in the developing world. As argued by Bangladeshi scientist and longtime IPCC author Saleemul Huq in a recent article for Climate Home, tackling climate change requires tangible and long-term capacity-building systems – systems that enable a country to go on building capacity for generations. As he argues, the best institutions to achieve this are universities, which currently educate most of the continent’s leaders and professionals. Universities also influence other educational institutions, national policies and more.

The regional master’s degree programme

The Programme for Climate Change Capacity Development (PCCCD) was developed by SARUA and member universities in 2010 as a direct response to the climate change impacts facing southern Africa. In 2012, SARUA, with the support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), commenced with its 18-month long regional Climate Change Counts mapping study to explore, define and verify the knowledge and research gaps across countries in the southern African region.

Generally speaking, the research illustrated that higher education enrolments in southern Africa are insufficient and, at the current rate of enrolment, we are likely to achieve 16% enrolment by 2015. This compares with a global gross enrolment rate of 30%. There are also insufficient numbers of PhDs being produced to ensure the region’s contribution to knowledge production and policy-making in any field, including climate change.

The idea of a master’s degree in climate change and sustainable development was widely recognized as a key “curriculum innovation point” for further development, especially via partnerships with universities that already have such degrees, and those that are ready to develop, or in the process of developing, master’s in this area. It was agreed that a master’s degree could create a feeder mechanism for more PhDs, provide much needed research capability, and contribute to more informed policy responses over time.

We are now at the point where a consortium of seven universities – the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University (South Africa); the University of Namibia; the University of Mauritius; Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique); Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania); and the Open University of Tanzania – is developing a shared regional master’s curriculum in climate change and sustainable development based on the principles of inter- and trans-disciplinarity, relevance, new knowledge and innovation.

The degree will develop capacity in both curriculum innovation and knowledge co-production methodologies. The curriculum and courseware will be made available for peer review in the region and will support Open Access publishing, which means access to universities to adapt the curriculum is free of charge. The curriculum design is flexible to allow for elective modules to be developed independently by universities beyond the consortium, and to be added to the overall resource base on an ongoing basis.

During the course of this year, regional capacity development workshops are being held with lecturers from interested and participating universities to equip SADC academics to prepare and deliver the programme, and to facilitate access to the learning material on the user-friendly, open source platform. Ongoing mentoring support will be provided to lecturers in 2017.

The case for inter-governmental support

SARUA is a regional universities’ association established in 2005 to strengthen and grow higher education in the SADC region. A foundational premise of the association is that universities play an important role not only in national socio-economic development but in regional development. Another central premise of the association is that by sharing capacity, universities can obviously achieve more.
This is not an isolated view. At the 2016 Going Global conference held in Cape Town last month (May), Higher Education and Minister Blade Nzimande and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor endorsed the need for greater collaboration between higher education institutions.

“Being in Africa, and also having some common challenges with our neighbours, collaborations have the potential of assisting in finding common solutions to our problems and to also assist our decision and policy-makers,” said Nzimande.

Minister Pandor was quoted as saying: “One of our problems is a lack of collaboration between Africans in higher education. We must address this as governments and funding partners.”

We couldn’t agree more, particularly in the light of the serious challenges facing universities in South Africa around student funding and curriculum innovation.

However, systemic long-term collaboration cannot happen unless higher education is accorded priority status by governments – as it has been in East Africa where the Inter-University Council for East Africa enjoys inter-governmental support in the areas of governance, legislation, strategy and resourcing as embedded features of the model. Unfortunately, this kind of commitment is yet to be achieved in other regions.

Over the years, SARUA has consistently made a case for high-level strategic planning and resourcing between SADC governments and university leadership around key programmes. And we will continue to do so. Now that a model for regional academic collaboration is in place focused on climate change, we see great other opportunities – to mobilise the scientific community to develop similar master’s programmes in areas of high relevance for the region such as Energy, Transport, Tourism, ICT and Water which are some of the key priorities identified in the SADC Regional Indicative Development Plan. For this to be actualized, funding from relevant SADC ministries and funders would be essential.

In so doing, our universities become better-placed to assert their roles as African leaders in innovation and socio-economic development.

Courtesy Business Day