Following Professor Graham Furniss’s opening remarks, I was invited to speak in my role as Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK at the launch of the British Academy’s new report entitled “Working with Africa: Human and Social Science Research in Action” on 3rd March 2011. My short speech outlined the importance of the British Academy’s funding programmes, the difficulties facing African universities and academics, and the ways through which the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC) is seeking to support them in partnership with like-minded organisations.
I began by thanking Graham Furniss, not only for his work at the British Academy in driving forward many of their African initiatives, but also for joining the CSC as a new Commissioner. I then emphasised the quality of the research featured in Working with Africa and thoroughly recommended it to the audience as a good read. I highlighted in particular the value of the British Academy’s past small grants programme, noting that small amounts of funding can go a long way in supporting outstanding and innovative research in the humanities and social sciences. This is particularly true for UK researchers near the beginnings of their careers, but it is also very important for establishing networks and partnerships as exemplified by the Academy’s support for research in Africa.
Despite such funding, I emphasised the many challenges faced by African researchers, and the very difficult financial, infrastructural and capacity issues that African universities had to overcome. I argued that years of global emphasis on primary education in Africa had left the higher education sector in a very diminished state. I also made the point that whilst much international emphasis is placed on support for scientific research designed to reduce poverty, research in the social sciences and humanities is at least as, if not more, important. Such research helps develop understandings of critical issues concerned with governance, social equality, the law, cultural diversity and economic change.
Finally, I highlighted the critical role of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in supporting research and professional development in Africa. The last decade has seen a transformation in the Commission’s activities, so that far from being a traditional awarder of basic scholarships, it now provides seven different kinds of award, including distance-based studentships as well as professional and academic fellowships. Moreover, evidence from the CSC’s monitoring and evaluation programme clearly indicates the value that these have in terms of development impact. The Commission is delighted that it continues to have the strong support of the UK government, and that DFID will be providing some £20 million a year towards its programme of awards in developing countries in the 2011-15 period. To be effective, though, it is important that we work together in partnership. I concluded by reiterating my thanks to the British Academy and also emphasising the need for the Commission and the Academy to work closely together in the future to achieve our shared objectives of enhancing scholarship in African universities.