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Listening and learning from Africa: insights from UAL’s first Africa Symposium

Person posing with African textiles and fabrics
  • Written byAlexandra Rodriguez Cifre
  • Published date 18 July 2022
Person posing with African textiles and fabrics
© Alexandra Tomiyama (2017)

On 16 June 2022, University of the Arts London hosted the first Africa Symposium [PDF, 4.5MB], an international online event where Black academic voices from across the African continent shed light on existing challenges and future opportunities to develop pan-African scholarly partnerships.

Researched and curated by Maureen Salmon, co-chair of UAL African Regional Group, the symposium was conceived as a learning opportunity for the UAL community to explore new ways of setting up strategic collaborations with African  scholars and universities — and as a listening space to learn directly from African voices about the impact of colonialism in higher education, how disparity in infrastructures and resources can negatively impact access to research and innovation opportunities, and non-Western perceptions around climate, racial and social justice.

Cultivating sustainable, ethical, equitable and mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships

Chaired by Professor Carol Tulloch, the first session invited scholars to address the question: How can we develop equitable learning partnerships between Africa and the UK?

David Mba, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise at UAL, opened the conversation reflecting on how approaches to strategic partnerships differ depending on who’s leading on those collaborations. According to David, UAL academics involved in funded research or knowledge exchange activities should start shifting the narrative and pursuing more equitable partnerships by asking: Who decides the agenda? Who sets the objectives? Whose interests are being served? Who will be the users of this new knowledge?

Having social purpose at the core of UAL’s new 10-year strategy, David acknowledged there are many opportunities to move beyond a Western viewpoint of what the University understands as social, racial and climate justice: “We want to widen our efforts to develop a worldwide and more impactful strategy, and we can only achieve that by engaging more actively with the global south. Thinking about how we can support our African partners to achieve the objectives set on Agenda 2063 would be a great starting point,” he explained.

We need to take Africa seriously as a place for knowledge production. We can do this by building academic communities that work together, learning new methodologies and ideas from each other, to create a system capable of making our knowledge transcend borders.

— Dr Divine Fuh, Director of Institute for Humanities in Africa at University of Cape Town

For Dr James Otieno Jowi, Principal Education Officer at the East African Community and Founding Executive Director of African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE), the asymmetries seen in African-European partnerships stem from the lack of funding opportunities within the African continent, especially for arts and humanities disciplines. “There will always be differences between south-north institutions, but there needs to be a balance between competition and cooperation. Strengthening capacities for research and knowledge production should be top priority for African universities engaging in Higher Education collaborations.”

All speakers agreed the lack of funding opportunities is a shared challenge among scholars in the African continent, an issue that inevitably contributes to power imbalances among African universities when joining international partnerships, which tend to be dominated by Western knowledges, methodologies and epistemologies.

“Shared missions will bring shared goals,” said Dr Emmanuel Abbey, Project Coordinator for The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). Reflecting on ARUA’s mission and vision, Emmanuel shared his thoughts on effective transnational research partnerships: “We need to focus on making African researchers and institutions globally competitive, which we can achieve through effective capacity-building and working together to increase research outputs. This is what Africa needs from its leading universities.”

“It’s true that a lot of the research from Africa does not have visibility outside of Africa. It’s not because the production of African knowledge is inferior, it’s because the opportunities, channels and possibilities to disseminate our knowledge are not built for equal visibility. That’s why we need to work together to pursue equal partnerships and create an environment that encourages African scholars to operate at the same level as Western scholars,” expressed Professor Muyiwa Falaiye, Director of the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies at University of Lagos.

Paintings of fire and a poster that says 'A tool of resistance'
'Old Devonshire Church Fire' by Rudy Loewe, PhD candidate at UAL

Contributing to creative local economies in Africa through Research and Knowledge Exchange

The second session focused on surfacing main challenges, opportunities and solutions to establish Research, Enterprise and Knowledge Exchange partnerships and collaborations between African and Western universities.

Professor Paul Goodwin, who chaired the session, opened the conversation prompting the speakers to address 2 key challenges:

  • How can we ensure ethical and equitable conditions to develop and maintain transnational collaborations?
  • Han can the research originated on the African continent can be effectively valued and evaluated so that it travels beyond African borders?

Dr Taibat Lawanson, Professor of Urban Planning at University of Lagos, started by highlighting the fact that effective participation from different institutions can only happen by respecting and embracing cultural differences, both in the way African universities approach research methodologies and the objectives they’re working towards: “There’s a need for us to enhance research integrity in the collaboration agreements that are signed between our various institutions. We should also focus on building meaningful relationships rather than working on a project-by-project type of arrangement.”

Dr René Alicia Smith, Head of the Wits School of Arts in South-Africa, reflected on the role of representation and allyship, and how non-African partners can play an active role in supporting and empowering innovative solutions coming from the continent. “We need to start thinking about these international projects as partnerships for change and transformation. Our allies need to begin identifying our contributions and our potential not only in the arts, but also on social economic and environmental justice matters, and then create room for African-led international research projects,” she said.

It is of critical importance for Africans to reclaim sovereignty over narratives and discourses that represent Africa’s life-worlds. Institutions like UNESCO can be an equaliser and a catalyser for the knowledge produced in the South and help us bring it towards global audiences.

— Professor Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, President of African Studies Association of Africa

“How do we create networks that enable multi-disciplinary collaboration and information sharing? I think the solution to that relies on intermediaries like higher education institutions,” mentioned Ojoma Ochai, Managing Partner for Creative Economy Practice at Co-Creation Hub Nigeria.

With an extensive background in establishing initiatives around capacity building and developing the research ecosystem within the creative industries in Africa, Ojoma spoke from an academic and market research perspective, describing potential solutions to bring the African arts and creative industries to a global stage. “Academic research on humanities and the arts doesn’t often filter back into the sector, so we need to strengthen the links between academia and the creative industries. There are initiatives like the Pan-African University and centres of excellence funded by the African Union that have started to emerge, but we need to see more investment in the arts to support those linkages.”

Looking at the present and future of interdisciplinary collaborative projects and practices

This final session brought together staff and students from UAL and partner African universities to share their transnational interdisciplinary research, projects and practices. The presentations were followed by a Q&A focused on various themes, including: social justice and decolonisation, climate emergency, placemaking and inclusive economies, community resilience, sustainability, and identities and equity.

Closing the symposium, Maureen Salmon said: "It has been incredibly insightful to hear from such rich and powerful variety of voices. The key learning is the need to respect and project indigenous languages, cultures, knowledge and philosophies of the African continent. We need to be strong advocates and cultivate ethical and equitable partnerships and collaborations that empower African scholars to reclaim their epistemological sovereignty to create alternative epistemologies to tell their own stories.”

Highlights from session 3: showcasing transnational interdisciplinary collaborations and student research projects, chaired by Maureen Salmon and Professor Mark Sealy — coming up soon!

For further information about the Symposium and future actions, contact Maureen Salmon: