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History & Origins


USHEPiA originated in the heady days of political transition in South Africa, at a time when South African universities were investigating and making links with other African institutions. The then Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Martin West, initiated discussions with the Rockefeller Foundation in 1992 to obtain funding for possible capacity-building partnerships with other African universities, particularly in the areas of science and engineering. In 1993, Professor West was part of a delegation of academics drawn from six South African universities who were invited to send observers to a meeting of the African Association of Universities (AAU). During this meeting the AAU agreed that African universities might co-operate individually with South African universities ahead of the political transition in South Africa in 1994.

Professor West then spent some time visiting universities in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in order to familiarise himself with conditions, make contacts, and develop plans for an exchange programme.

Using a Launching Grant of 50,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, UCT was able to bring 21 Vice Chancellors and Deans of Science and Engineering of other African universities to UCT for preliminary discussions. These centred on useful forms of co-operation, and there was unanimity as to the importance of staff development. In general, a staff development programme with UCT was favoured because:

  • research was likely to be more relevant to the continent
  • costs were likely to be lower than an equivalent scheme in Europe or North America, and
  • it was hoped that a continental location would reduce the threat of a ‘brain-drain’.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by all present, supporting mutual collaboration to strengthen science and engineering capacity in Africa, and authorizing UCT to solicit funding for a suitable staff capacity-building programme.

The Rockefeller Foundation then provided a $200,000 Challenge Grant to develop the Science and Engineering initiative in Africa (USEPiA). In 1995 further funding was obtained from the Carnegie Corporation, the Coca Cola Foundation and the Ridgefield Foundation. The major sponsors of the initiative required that senior UCT staff undertake visits to African universities and government officials prior to awarding any capacity building funds.

During the discussions with partner universities it became clear that the priority was to develop science and engineering capacity to enable sub-Saharan scientists and engineers to compete as equals internationally, thereby contributing to the socio-economic upliftment of Africa. Certain points were highlighted :

  • the need to concentrate on research in fields appropriate to Africa’s needs
  • the importance of mutually beneficial collaboration built on common interest
  • effective staff development by means of ongoing research collaboration between participating institutions.

A plan emerged whereby applicants to the programme could register for their post-graduate degrees at either their home institution, or UCT with co-supervisors drawn from each institution. Fieldwork was to take place in the country of origin, and time at UCT when necessary for consultations, and access to the institutions resources and expertise. Additional benefits such as staff exchanges for lecture series, external examining, short courses, and mutual research, were deemed important and valuable.

The delegations’ visits proved to be very valuable. Relationships were built between institutions with key administrators and academics. Visits to the various campuses allowed the delegates to assess existing levels of infrastructural support. This kind of contact assisted in both the selection of candidates and the understanding of their specific infrastructural support requirements.

During the initial round of consultation visits, the lack of a Humanities component to the programme was raised at almost each institution. As a result, the project approached the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and obtained a generous grant to establish an Humanities programme which included the liberal and performing arts, social sciences, humanities, economics and education, and USHEPiA was born.

The project started with the first cohort in 1996, and has over the years produced 10 cohorts of post-graduate students (see Beneficiaries for more details). There have also been a number of evaluations and strategic planning sessions as funding and circumstances have shifted. The ultimate long-term goal is to make USHEPiA, which has proved itself as a successful model of academic capacity development, sustainable in the longer term.