University of South Africa: Productive and high-paced engagements by Unisans during Research Week in France

During the preparation meetings to embark on a journey to participate in the South Africa Higher Education and Research Week (RW) in France that took place between 27 June and 2 July 2022, the Unisa delegation understood the importance of seeing and experiencing the higher education research landscapes through different lenses. The delegation joined representatives from 23 South African universities in pursuit of building stronger partnerships with French higher education institutions. From the onset, Professor SR Magano, Executive Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES), who led a team comprising of Dr L Ncube (CAES), Dr T Dirsuweit (CAES), Professor K M Masemola (College of Human Sciences), Professor M Maaza (College of Graduate Studies), Professor M Mkansi (College of Economic and Management Sciences), Professor N Mlitwa (Graduate School of Business Leadership), Professor M Masenya (Office of the Vice-Chancellor), Ms Y Mathole (Office of the Vice-Chancellor) and Mr P Mokoena (Inhlanyelo Hub) understood the importance of bringing together different colleagues from various portfolios to participate in a series of diverse engagements, meetings, workshops and visits in France. The preceding important goal was supported by the RW’s participants in their foregrounding of the need for the MIT research collaborations

To welcome the participants, four guided tours around Paris were offered on 26 June, which introduced South African participants to the French walking culture. The opening event on 27 June highlighted the importance of collaboration as great leaders and experts in their own fields addressed the delegates. The Campus France organised the first event which was hosted by Sciences PO. Mme Donatienne Hissard: Director General of Campus France, M Mathias Vicherat: Director of Sciences Po, M Matthieu Peyraud: Director, DCERR, Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and M Patrick Nedellec, Director DAEI, Ministry of Higher Education and Research set the scene. Ambassadors HE M Aurélien Lechevallier, Embassy of France to South Africa and HE M Tebogo Seokolo, Embassy of South Africa to France displayed the good working relationships between the two countries and the need for such relations to also benefit the academic environments. Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the National Research Foundation, and Mr Khaya Sishuba, Director, Department of Science and Innovation (SA), the pillars of research and innovation, encouraged the participants to use the RW to expand their collaboration with other institutions for the benefit of the research communities and those who will reap from the innovations and new projects created by researchers with mutual interest with a view to making the world a better place.

For the Unisa delegation, in order to appreciate the academic and research landscapes in France and a better understanding of their participation in the RW, virtual meetings with Dr Antoine Petit, CEO of the CNRS, and Dr Patrick Caron, Vice-President International Affairs, University of Montpellier, were held before travel. When Professor Manuel Tunon de Lara, President of France Universités, and Dr Antoine Petit addressed the participants, Unisans had an added advantage of understanding the deeper meaning of collaboration with different French organisations. It is hoped that such benefits will soon bear fruit for the benefit of the whole Unisa community.

In order to create conducive ways of using the RW to enhance good collaborations, panel discussions on the landscape for higher education, science diplomacy as well as research and innovation in South Africa, followed by one on the existing partnerships, opportunities and challenges, gave a glimpse of how to create good sustainable relationships. The joint presentation by Dr Aldo Stroebel, Executive Director, National Research Foundation, and M Moncef Meddeb, Attaché for Science & Technology, Embassy of France to South Africa, on instruments and opportunities announcements and the launch of new programmes, enabled the participants to see the bigger picture of the benefits of working together as people from the North and South.

When it was time for the one-on-one meetings between South African and French institutions, the delegates did not only focus on scheduled appointments, but also used the free flow engagements to gather more information about possible collaborations for the Unisa colleges. For Professor Magano, listening to panel discussions on the governance of universities reminded him of the importance of working together as Unisans because we mirror the successes and challenges of this august institution wherever we go.

The week was loaded with meetings from different places within Paris and further afield such as the University of Le Mans, where Professor Maaza took a train to confirm our interest in collaborating with this university. On the same day, Professor Magano had to also take a train to Belgium, Brussels, which is known as the capital of Europe, to attend the session on “Imagining a new Euro-African scientific partnership”, which was organized by the CNRS and the IRD in the framework of the French Presidency of the European Union Council. To cover the groundwork, the Unisan delegate had to split to explore and engage in parallel sessions on individual or group bases, such as visits to Paris Saclay University, Paris Serbonne University, Schneider Electric and others. Mr Mokoena, the Incubation and Enterprise Development Lead whose work at Inhlanyelo Hub is to inculcate the culture of entrepreneurship throughout the university and to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurship ventures by students, staff, academics and alumni, was elated by what he saw at Paris Saclay University. Paris Saclay speaks the same language as the vision of the hub where the promotion of studentpreneurship is taken seriously. The African proverb, kgomo ga e ntšhe boloko ka moka (tenor: one does not have to tell the full story at once) comes to mind here. The ongoing initiation and implementation processes of what the delegates committed themselves to, will hopefully be evident from ensuing actions.

The second leg of the research week saw the delegations enthusiastically move down to the south of France in Montpellier to engage in discussions with the most important three organisations in research and innovation:

Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) is the French state research organisation and is the largest fundamental science agency in Europe.
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) is a French science and technology establishment under the joint supervision of the French Ministries of Higher Education and Research and Foreign Affairs.
Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, which is a French agricultural research and international cooperation organisation working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions.
After remarks from different angles from welcoming and addressing research and student programmes, by the likes of Professor Philippe Augé, President of University of Montpellier, Mr Pascal DUMY, Director of the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Chimie de Montpellier (ENSCM), Professor François Pierrot, Vice-President Partnerships and Innovation, I-Site of Excellence Director, Montpellier University Professor Agnes Fichard-Caroll, Vice-President Student Life and Education, University of Montpellier, the delegates once again glued their attention to the remarks by Dr Patrick Caron, Vice-President International Affairs, University of Montpellier, tackling matters on Montpellier hub and Europe – Africa portal and African universities – European universities. As an African university shaping intellectual futures in the service of humanity, the interest was so much on how the envisaged collaborations would bring other African researchers on the continent to the collaboration table with other European universities. There was a deliberate focus on identifying those partnerships that would assist Unisans in their activation as well as realisation of the ten Catalytic Niches.

The panel presentations at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie, represented by panellists from France and South Africa, including among others, M Michael Delafosse, Mayor of Montpellier and President of Méditerranée Montpellier Metropole, Professor Moshabela, the DVP Research and Innovation at the KwaZulu-Natal University were focused on building a global collective expertise on the links between environment, and health and food, science communities, the central role of cooperation in sustainable development, and the university in the city, a driver of sustainable development.

To gain practical experience of the research and innovation work done in Montpellier, the delegations visited the campus and laboratories of CNRS Ecotron on Campus Baillarguet, which is open to national and international research teams in the fields of ecology, population and community biology and agronomy. With great collaboration within the university’s different portfolios, together with researchers in France, Africa and the African Diasporas, we hope to soon see more Unisans participate in research at Ecotron.

The delegates are eager to share and collaborate with colleagues following their memorable experiences during the RW in France. After being rained on, walking long distances, travelling mostly by trains, meeting new people, and learning a lot, it was time to come home to share and implement all that was gained during our hectic yet exciting research week in France.