South Africa and EU sign joint education cooperation declaration

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by Ard Jongsma 17 May 2012 Issue No:222 of University World News

South Africa and the European Union (EU) signed a Joint Declaration on Cooperation in Education and Training on Thursday, the formal endorsement of years of intensifying collaboration between the two partners.

South Africa was officially represented by Hlengiwe Mkhize, the deputy minister for higher education and training. Jan Truszczynski (pictured), director-general of education and culture, signed the declaration on behalf of the EU.

Truszczynski was on an official four-day visit to South Africa, coinciding with a joint conference in Cape Town on responsive and quality postgraduate education. It was the third general meeting of the African Higher Education Harmonisation and Tuning group and the second “Study in Europe” fair, held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

In fact, Truszczynski’s four-day tour around universities in the Cape region was perhaps a greater endorsement even than his signature – collaboration has been strong even before this official declaration of intent.

He referred to the agreement as “a stepping stone in the quality of our cooperation”.

While Truszczynski called existing cooperation with South Africa “very fertile soil”, he also warned that results would not come without effort.

“Policy dialogue is only as good as you want it to be,” he said. “I have seen cases of policy dialogue that amounted to little more than exchanges of opinion without any follow-up or translation of ideas.”

Technically, the declaration does not have immediate practical implications. But it is an important political statement, which has been long overdue.

It reaffirms the importance both parties attach to education among the activities that have been developed following earlier, more general agreements, such as the trade agreement and even the conclusions of the EU-SA Joint Cooperation Council meetings of 2008 and 2009 that called for broadening cooperation in the fields of education and training.

The declaration opens the way for cooperation across the entire education system, but in the years ahead there will probably continue to be a bias towards higher education and vocational education and training.

The main difference with similar documents signed with other strategic partners of the EU is the mention of equity in education. This addition was specifically requested by South Africa, as it is a key element in the country’s education strategies.

Among the first focal areas for intensified collaboration will be mobility and postgraduate education and research, equity and quality in education, quality assurance mechanisms and stakeholder involvement.

Other fields that are explicitly mentioned in the agreement are recognition, credit transfer and accumulation, qualifications frameworks and the transparency and transferability of qualifications, teacher education, benchmarks, lifelong learning and vocational education and training.

Deputy Minister Mkhize stressed that the greatest challenge that needs to be addressed in South African education, and that will therefore be a focal point for policy dialogue, is youth unemployment, which she called “still unacceptably high”.

South Africa has 3.5 million unemployed people aged between 18 and 24 years.

“International partnerships are a resource for the improvement of quality and relevance in our education system,” said Mkhize. “There are many lessons to be learned through cooperation with the EU.”

EU Ambassador Roeland van der Geer, however, stressed that cooperation with South Africa is not quite the same as that with “countries where the Europeans build bridges and roads”.

“As a leading country on the continent, South Africa is also a key partner for jointly facing the challenges of Africa as a whole.”

So while cooperation between South Africa and the EU takes place within the framework of agreements that are quite different from those governing cooperation with most other African countries, the education policy dialogue will continue to be firmly based on continental initiatives developed under the Africa-EU Strategy, which also involves the African Union Commission, African regional associations and, in higher education, the Association of African Universities.

The declaration obliges its signatories to jointly set up a rolling work programme to conduct their education policy dialogue. They will regularly review its implementation and discuss avenues for future cooperation.

To this end, senior officials from both sides will in principle meet once a year, with the venue alternating between Brussels and South Africa or any other venue agreed by both sides. The subject of the next dialogue will be professionalising quality management in higher education.

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