A network of five African Institutes for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) provides advanced training in applied mathematics to top African students, enabling them to pursue high-quality post-graduate studies and eventually, as future leaders, contribute to African economic, political and educational development. Funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID), AIMS plans to open 10 more centres by 2025.

Commissioned by AIMS, Technopolis Group has undertaken a mid-term evaluation of the AIMS programme. The review covers progress towards its objectives and intended outcomes, the identification of early results from the programme (including success stories), and the documentation of best practices, opportunities, lessons and corrective actions needed for the next phase of implementation and to ensure the realisation of the expected results.

Innovative breakthrough

The AIMS education model’s innovative approach to teaching students at Master’s level is of most interest. It is Pan-African, bi-lingual in some of the centres (English and French), and exposes students to high-calibre international lecturers, visiting on a voluntary basis to teach for modules of three weeks each.

Students are supported on a 24/7 basis by their tutors, and both share dedicated accommodation buildings. Rather than examining students’ knowledge acquisition, the AIMS model focuses on the continuous assessment of their acquisition of a set of skills in maths and computing, attitudes and values, entrepreneurship, communication and analytical thinking. The learning environment, based on the fostering of dialogue, is unique.

In addition, the organisation and costs of accommodation, meals and visas are all covered by AIMS, to ensure students only focus on their studies, and there is no discrimination based on students’ social origin.

This model is quite a breakthrough in the African university landscape, which is driven by more classic methods of teaching, i.e. “students listening to edifying courses”. Many African universities have limited resources, e.g. computers or software. They also suffer from corruption, are overcrowded with students, and cannot afford professors of international calibre or provide full scholarships to their students.

While the Francophone countries of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education (CAMES) seem to do slightly better at ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics’ (STEM) education for teaching and research, Anglophone countries produce few skilled maths researchers. South Africa is no exception, despite being one of the most advanced systems in Africa.

Links to development

The exposure of AIMS students to international lecturers, tutors and colleagues often launches them onto an international education path, as many go on to pursue Master’s degrees and PhDs abroad, but a significant number return to an education career in Africa. The gratitude of AIMS students and alumni for their education is striking. They are committed to giving back to the institution and to Africa by contributing to solutions to developmental challenges.

Despite these positive achievements and the global recognition for excellence that the model has received, a number of questions remain. The classic African university systems do not always accept diplomas from AIMS and some tend to question the significant resources the initiative receives from local and international governments. Currently, AIMS produces many more teachers, professors and researchers than scientists working in industry or the policy arena, where many of Africa’s challenges need to be solved. AIMS also has to comply with donor agendas, which sometimes pull in different directions, and has to resist these different trends in order to keep its identity and focus.

Technopolis Group is now supporting AIMS in identifying ways to consolidate and build on its success. We hope that our long-term relationship will continue to contribute to AIMS’ success and to African development.

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