On Monday, 15 April, Universities SA (USAf) hosted a five-person delegation from Romania to hold introductory talks exploring renewing relations between universities in Romania and those in South Africa, especially at post-graduate and research levels.
As explained by Ms Daniela Gîtman, Ambassador at Large and Special Representative for UN Affairs within Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the purpose of their visit to USAf was three fold: a) to establish relations with South Africa’s universities’ umbrella association; b) to identify common areas of interest in which both countries could explore joint research programmes and c) to work towards some kind of agreement for collaboration.
The Romanian university system; an overview
In giving a broad overview of Romania’s university system, Professor Leonard Azamfirei, a professor of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care, who is also Rector at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Târgu Mures, stated that Romania had a total of 92 universities, of which 54 were public and 38 were private institutions. Over 540,000 students were enrolled at these 92 institutions, including a number of international students. He mentioned that even though the number of international students had increased over the past three to four years “as we opened up international exchange opportunities, we are interested in what we could do with non-European universities using, for instance, the opportunities provided by the Erasmus+ initiative for staff and student mobility, and the Horizon 2020 programme in building joint research activity in areas including Agriculture, Bio-economy, Climate Change, Information and Communication Technology, Energy and New Emerging technology.”
What the Romanians are looking for
Further to the areas mentioned above, Ms Gîtman added that currently, there were 28 South African students studying in Romania, fully self-funded. She said her country was looking to expand on this number by even offering full scholarships to South African students pursuing masters and doctoral studies in areas including Engineering, Public Governance and Political Studies and Medicine. She said the scholarships would fully cover tuition and accommodation costs for up to six years of study. She added that even though their institutions offered tuition in English, German, Hungarian or Spanish, tuition was also available in Romanian. “We prefer to have students who study in Romanian, to fully merge into the social set-up and Romanian culture, make better friends and, ultimately, become our ambassadors,” she admitted. Those wishing to study in Romanian would need to invest their first year to studying the language.
In addition, Romania was looking to extend its relationship with South Africa to exchanging visiting professors in priority areas to be identified by both countries.
What SA will bring to the party
On behalf of South Africa’s universities, Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, also gave the Romanians an overview of South Africa’s university system. He explained that ours was a system embedded in an adolescent democracy. He painted a picture of South Africa’s 26 public universities enrolling a total of just over one million students; stated that SA’s university sector had a participation rate of 20%, while that of the broader post-school education and training (PSET) sector including vocational training and education (TVET) colleges stood at 35% . He also disclosed the 42-58 male-to-female ratio in our student enrolment and added that 40% of undergraduate students relied on government grants from the National Students Financial Aid Scheme. In addition to explaining the challenges facing the SA university system, Prof Bawa also shared South Africa’s research output statistics and how the outputs were represented in the key research areas, such as Biomedical and Clinical Sciences (16%); Business, Economic and Management Sciences (10%); in Social Sciences (9%); Physical Sciences (9%); Life Sciences (8%); Engineering (8%) and Education (7%).
Furthermore, Prof Bawa explained the role of USAf as a representative body and voice of SA’s public universities and how it functioned within SA’s higher education system.
At this meeting, South Africa’s universities were represented by a ten-member team headed by Prof Ahmed Bawa. He was accompanied by representatives of at least six universities, namely the University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria, University of South Africa, University of the Western Cape, University of Venda and the University of the Witwatersrand. Three senior managers within USAf were also in attendance. On the Romanian side, Ambassador at Large Gîtman was accompanied by His Excellency Mr Marius Borănescu, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Romania to South Africa, and three representatives of Romania’s university system.
Also in attendance were Ms Thobela Dube, Deputy Director: International Relations in the Department of Higher Education and Training, and Ms Alinah Mailula, Assistant Director: Central Europe Desk in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).
In the audience were representatives of DHET and DIRCO, USAf, South African and Romanian universities.
Agreed next steps
As a way of driving the relationship building forward, Professor Andrew Crouch, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, encouraged a university-to-university engagement at the level of academics. He said while he understood the urgency of plugging into the Erasmus+ programme, “in order to identify interested parties and for this process to take root, academics must be allowed to drive it.”
In agreement, Professor Khehla Ndlovu, Vice-Principal: Strategy, Risk and Advisory Services at the University of South Africa, said some work could start while preparations were being made for umbrella-to-umbrella engagements to take place. Dr Nolitha Vukuza, Senior Executive Director in the Vice-Chancellor’s office at the University of Johannesburg, also agreed with the proposition to start institutional engagements.
Taking his cue from the comments made by these representatives and others, Prof Bawa said there clearly was interest in pursuing this relationship further. As the next steps, he proposed, at USAf level, to find out which universities already had cooperation agreements with Romanian universities, and also to conduct some data analysis to see what joint research studies had resulted in publications in the context of already existing agreements. He said those would be the first steps towards identifying areas in which the two countries could collaborate. The next step would be to convene a meeting of South African vice-chancellors to explore the relationship together.
In support of Prof Bawa, USAf’s Director: Sector Support, Dr Berene Kramer, said it was important to gatherinformation from the two countries on their national priority needs, their major areas of interest and their respective research strengths.
As government-to-government engagements progressed towards an agreement hereafter, Ms Gîtman mentioned that Romania was open to already forming university-to-university collaborations in research. In order to facilitate a sector-to-sector relationship, she offered to facilitate further engagements between USAf and its Romanian counterpart, the National Council of Rectors. She offered to take South Africa’s delegation of vice-chancellors on a tour of the Romanian university system later in 2019 to showcase their facilities and familiarise them to at least some of their 250 programmes.
“We are ready to accept students into their institutions for programmes implementable by June 2020, if South Africa Is ready,” Ms Gîtman suggested. Fellowships, however,could start asearly as September 2019 or as soon as SA universities were ready. “For now, we need to find some pilot projects that would mark Stage 1 of our cooperation. We can expand the fields of specialisation and scope of our cooperation in Stage 2, later.”
She also assured South African universities that the Ambassador of Romania to the Republic of South Africa, H.E. Mr. Marius Borănescu, was very keen to establish this relationship, and that he would follow-up on these initial talks to firm up the relationship as best as he could. I
In closing, Prof Bawa said that universities were best placed to resolve a lot of global problems. “Considering the very significant role that Eastern Europe played in our freedom, South Africa’s linkages with this region are not fully developed. It is therefore important to re-establish those relations”.
In agreement, the Romanian Ambassador said diplomatic relations between Romania and South Africa dated back to 1991, and that it was important to attract youngsters into this relationship, hence their choice of education as an appropriate focus area to achieve that aim.
Expressing his gratitude for this engagement opportunity and therich discussion generated, Mr. Marius Borănescu mentioned that even though the Romanian embassy circulated scholarship notices to South Africa through DIRCO, the problem was that these opportunities tended to attract people with no real intention to study in Romania. “Only when candidates come for an interview do we find out they are looking to use Romania as a springboard into Europe to live and stay there.”
He added that even though Romania and SA had signed a memorandum of collaboration in education in 2013, that agreement had expired before it could bear results. “Within my mandate we never had a meeting,” he stated, further promising his full support to these renewed collaboration attempts, and promising, by working through DIRCO, to achieve concrete results this time around.