New education initiatives to follow France’s soft power drive

21Oct 2021
The Guardian
New education initiatives to follow France’s soft power drive

FRANCE is strengthening partnerships with the African higher education sector – a move perceived to be part of a broader strategy of higher education diplomacy or ‘soft power’ aimed at strengthening African alliances to serve France’s cultural, economic and political agendas.

Prof Juma Shabani.

The challenges in Africa-France cooperation in higher education, along with ways to promote initiatives, were highlighted by higher education stakeholders at the New Africa-France summit held in the southern French city of Montpellier on 8 October, which included a focus on higher education, research and innovation.

France, which was ranked eighth worldwide in 2019 on the Soft Power 30 education sub-index, has had its influence in Africa chipped away over time.

Against this backdrop, Prof Juma Shabani from the University of Burundi explains the significance of the Montpellier event: “The summit comes in with a new format, new actors and new themes, including higher education, just as France’s influence in the former colonial power’s historic turf is increasingly contested by world powers including Russia and China and amid political problems with some African countries, including Algeria and Mali.”

The summit aims to reinvent Africa-France relations in several fields, including higher education and research, which go back more than a century and are, therefore, built on a solid foundation, said Shabani, the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and a former UNESCO development director.

“The Africa-France summit served to strengthen France’s soft power, given the direct influence it will have on the African youth,” he told University World News. This is because recommendations about the development of higher education are relevant to the employability and youth self-employment in Africa.

The summit, which for the first time ever, did not convene African heads of state but rather civil society actors such as academics, researchers and students, among others, follows on French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech in November 2017 at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where he announced the start of a new relationship with African countries with a focus that includes access to higher education.

Several initiatives were launched at the summit, including supporting programmes to enable greater student mobility, a five-year €130 million (about US$151 million) fund to support African digital start-ups through the Digital Africa initiative, which could help to tackle graduate unemployment and the creation of a three-year €30 million fund for democracy in Africa, in which African universities could play an important part.

In addition, a ‘House of African worlds and Diasporas’, will be established.

“This ‘house’ will provide a meeting place for Africans from Africa and the diaspora to share and exchange knowledge in various areas, including higher education, African cultures and languages, as well as providing various learning opportunities, including the learning of African languages,” said Shabani.

Dr Laté Lawson, the research manager at the UK- and Africa-based Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA), told University World News: “Any event for Africans in the diaspora should be connected back to Africa to understand, engage with and support higher education actors on the continent.

“Working in silos will not help, as those in the diaspora, without meaningful dialogue, may view things from a different lens compared to those based there [in Africa],” Lawson added.

Amina Bouzguenda-Zeghal, the CEO of the Université Paris-Dauphine in Tunis, the first international campus of Université Paris Dauphine, told University World News: “For me, the main interest of the New Africa-France Summit is to listen to young people from Africa and France instead of to the exchange of speeches between officials.

“Promoting cooperation for higher education and innovation starts with understanding the needs and ambitions of young people in Africa,” said Bouzguenda-Zeghal.

“It was interesting to question the lexicon used in the context of cooperation. For example: Should the name of the French Development Agency be replaced by the Co-investment Agency?”

But, added Bouzguenda-Zeghal, despite the importance of the mobility of young people between countries to enable cooperation, no questions were raised during the summit about visas, after France announced the restriction on the number of visas for countries in North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, a few days earlier.

According to the summit website, there are 82,994 African students studying in French universities and higher education institutions.

According to Bouzguenda-Zeghal, there was scope to strengthen Africa-France cooperation on research, higher education and innovation as only 2% of France’s aid to Africa goes towards research and development.

“We note that a good number of young graduates in medicine and engineering (especially in computer science) are trained in African universities and find their jobs in France,” she said.

However, she added that those trained in research, development and innovation should benefit Africa first.

Lawson from ESSA agrees that Africa should be the focus. “The Africa-France higher education cooperation needs to invest in and encourage African-led research on Africa, in addition to fostering the decolonisation of higher education in French-speaking Africa,” he said.

Shabani said through the France-Africa cooperation, challenges that can be tackled include access, quality assurance of programmes, employability, youth self-employment and the relevance and availability of research results to industry.

“These challenges could be met through the sharing of good practices in curriculum design and implementation that could promote programmes that meet the needs of the world of work, youth self-employment and strengthening cooperation within doctoral schools to enhance research and innovation,” Shabani suggested.