New initiative to improve the caliber and relevance of graduate students.

A new European Union-funded project meant to enhance the quality and relevance of the training of graduate students and young researchers in Africa has the potential to help ease the shortage of academic staff and researchers at universities.

The Internationalisation and Digitalisation of Graduate Training and Research for the Attainment of African Regional and Global Development Goals (DigiGrad) Africa project also has the potential to alleviate the problem of an ageing faculty by injecting into universities young, well-exposed and digital-savvy researchers.

The DigiGrad Africa project that will run for three years will enhance the training of a new generation of graduate students, helping the continent attain its regional and global development goals by harnessing opportunities provided through the digitalisation and internationalisation of education.

The initiative is a partnership between the Kenya-based African Network for the Internationalisation of Education (ANIE), and the European higher education and research association Obreal Global. It is funded under the European Union’s (EU’s) Erasmus+ programme to the tune of €625,000 (about US$676,000) and will support postgraduate training in eight African universities in Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi and Ghana. Four universities from the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Spain are also participating in the North-South project.

Graduate studies the main focus

The project seeks to refine, contextualise, and articulate higher education institutions’ strategies for digitalisation and internationalisation, more so in relation to graduate training, said Dr James Jowi, who will coordinate the project. He is the founding executive secretary of ANIE and is a member of the ANIE board.

In addition, it will also build staff capacity at African universities to better manage internationalisation, particularly with regard to graduate studies, Jowi added. Staff will be trained to use digital tools to strengthen graduate training as well as internationalise. The project will also increase the capacity of young African researchers to exploit digitalisation, he noted.

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“We expect that, in the end, we will build a critical mass of young lecturers, and hope that universities will have an opportunity to learn and act together,” he said during a session at the two-day project kick-off meeting held in Eldoret, Kenya.

This will involve working with both students and their supervisors, which will require both to be trained in digitisation and internationalisation to facilitate more effective training of the postgraduate students, Jowi explained.

In the end, he said the project outcomes would include developing robust strategy documents for digitalising, internationalisation, research enhancement and producing a relevant handbook. Research supervisors and staff of internationalisation offices will benefit from similar training, and a virtual post-graduate student training programme will be developed alongside, establishing an African Young Researchers’ network, complete with a sustainability plan.

Burundi, South Sudan also on board

The involvement of South Sudanese and Burundian universities was intended, not only to help build their capacity for postgraduate training and research, but to link them to other universities in Africa and Europe with whom they can collaborate and share experiences and knowledge.

“Burundi and South Sudan have not been participating in EU programmes, so it was time to bring them on board, especially now that the EU has lifted the embargo on Burundi. These two countries also have challenges with institutional capacities due to several years of conflict which affected the development of their universities,” Jowi said.

The DigiGrad Africa project is complex but appreciates that different countries and universities involved operate differently. This means that different parties will own the project in their own specific ways, said Elizabeth Colucci, the director of international projects at Obreal Global.

The project’s complex nature called for a rethink in handling the interface between internationalisation, digitisation and postgraduate training. Implementers should, therefore, keep specific project objectives in mind at all times, the same being the framework of the project.

Network of early-career researchers the aim

The three-year project is divided into six different ‘work packages’ and ‘work plans’, starting with management and quality monitoring and ending with communication and dissemination, all to be implemented over the period and at various stages of its life, Colucci explained.

The packages are linked to the fulfilment of project objectives, some transversal, and others overlapping. Each of the packages also has co-leads who drive the activities but will involve all partners at some level. They also have different target groups and beneficiaries within a university, she added. Each work package has tasks and its own deliverables.

Project beneficiaries and target groups at the level of partner universities include early-career researchers, internationalization and digital managers, and postgraduate student supervisors. Towards the end of the project, she reiterated, a network of early-career researchers will be established, complete with a sustainability plan and website.

The communication and dissemination work package, on the other hand, will have tasks that will include project partners developing a communication plan and strategy, developing promotional material and actual dissemination at seminars and conferences in Africa, coupled with a social media campaign.

Project will enable credit transfer

The fact that the project is focused on improving the quality of postgraduate training in Africa makes it especially important, said Professor Kirimi Kiriamiti, Moi University’s deputy vice-chancellor for administration, planning and strategy.

“We are happy because this initiative will, for example, allow credit transfers between partner universities, and also ensure there’s a digital platform that will enable participating universities to teach their students remotely,” Kiriamiti said.

A key outcome of the inaugural meeting was a clear road map for implementation to prepare project partners to start executing the plans, said ANIE chairperson Professor Goski Alabi. It allowed the partners to explore priorities and opportunities discussing detailed plans, expected outputs and impacts of the project.

“After affording partners in this project an opportunity to meet and know each other more closely, I believe we are looking forward to a timely execution of the project and contribute to the achievement of the goal for the Africa we want,” she said.

The project will have a project management committee responsible for running activities, Jaume Fortuny, senior project manager at Obreal Global, said. The committee includes representatives of participating universities, ANIE, Obreal Global, and the EU.

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