The Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) is a global association comprising universities, academic networks and scientific research centres that use the French language. Its rector, Slim Khalbous, explains the mission of this multilateral institution to Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet.
The Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) is a multilateral institution supporting cooperation and solidarity among French-speaking universities and institutions. It brings together 1007 universities, colleges, university networks and scientific research centres using the French language in 119 countries. Created 60 years ago, it is one of the largest associations of higher education and research institutions in the world.
The AUF is also the specialist higher education and research agency for the International Organisation of La Francophonie, the organisation bringing together countries where French is spoken and French culture is present.
Slim Khalbous, a former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in and Interim Education Minister in Tunisia, was appointed as its rector in 2019. In the following interview he explains the origins and mission of this little-known but very valuable institution.
New African: You took over as rector of the AUF in 2019. After adopting a strategy for 2021-25, do you feel that you moving forward with the “revolution” you want to lead?
Slim Khalbous: We are on the right track, even if not everything is completed. Indeed, the idea is to renew education in the French-speaking world and promote the French language. For us academics, the development of skills in the world is a very important issue given the complexity of the development we are aiming for in our countries, particularly in Africa.
The challenge is to put skills, knowledge, and collective intelligence at the centre of the notion of development. This is our long-term objective, but to achieve it, we have had to fundamentally reform our organisation.
This institution, little known to the general public, has more than 1,000 members, is present in 119 countries, with 81 local representations, and a budget of over €43m. You practice a diplomacy of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. How does all this work on a day-to-day basis?
The AUF began as a utopia in 1961, in Montreal when a dozen universities met and asked themselves: “Why not create a worldwide network of French-speaking universities?” Sixty years later, we now have more than a thousand universities and research centres that are members of our organisation. This makes the AUF the first university network in the world, by far. Other networks exist but we are much larger in terms of countries and members.
We are very proud of this network, which is present on five continents. We have an administrative organisation around ten regions in the world and our members come from 120 countries. This means that we exist well beyond the French-speaking world, which includes about 50 countries. We address everyone because knowledge has no cultural or linguistic boundaries.
We are certainly French-speaking, and we promote what the French language can bring in terms of knowledge and science. But we work with everyone and value multilingualism for development through science. In a rather traditional way, we accompany countries in their educational and university reforms.
Moreover, we work in non-French speaking countries that want to develop cooperation, mobilisation and mobility projects with the French-speaking scientific space.
The AUF is an organisation in full development. Our budget has increased by 20% in the last two years, while everyone is complaining about a decline in funding. We are proud to have been able to convince public donors but especially private donors through the competitive funds where we submit our projects. And today, we are more and more successful in obtaining funding contracts.
I would like to remind you that the AUF is a non-profit development aid organisation. All the money we raise from partnership contracts goes back to development aid through knowledge. Primary, secondary and university education systems, notably through training and guidance.
The 2025 strategy revolves, first and foremost, around the issue of the employability of graduates affected by unemployment, paradoxically in countries that lack skills. Then there is the question of digital education, as an aid to good governance. And I would like to mention the element of research for the development of countries: we are working on the pooling of networks and skills throughout the world.
There are many institutions doing the same thing. What makes you different from the others?
Two key elements radically differentiate us. The first is the ability to mobilise, on an international scale, all the expertise in all specialities. Our presence in 120 countries allows us to mobilise experts from all disciplines, languages, and specialities. We are one of the few organisations in the world that can do this. The second, which complements the expertise, is the element of proximity. We have a physical presence in more than 60 countries. Our digital campuses and national representatives are present all over the world.
The political dimension is very important. We understand that we cannot transform the university system without the support and cooperation of political decision-makers. In countries where we do not have a national office, there are very high-ranking academics who have been presidents of universities or ministers that represent the AUF.
Other organisations are richer than ours, but they don’t have this unparalleled proximity to the field. Often, the problem is that university and scientific cooperation starts with a friendly action or an event but quickly loses momentum because there is no local representation. We are present in 42 countries with teams and services on-site and through cooperation and headquarters agreements with the governments concerned. This gives us an incredible strength of proximity.
Faced with the collapse of education systems, what can you do to improve the quality of education?
We are well aware of the magnitude of the challenges that await all the member countries of our organisation concerning the problem of quality of education. And especially with the problem of post-education, i.e. the consequences of having skills that are not up to standard and graduate unemployment at its highest. This is unacceptable because we have been explaining for the past twenty years that Africa lacks skills.
All African countries have invested massively in the training of high-level students and there has been a tremendous quantitative development of universities. But the results are very mixed. The massification of higher education has not improved the quantity or the quality of diplomas. There are certainly a lot of graduates but, according to employers, they are not employable. The brain drain has also increased and the best students, not finding opportunities in their countries, are leaving for those of the North.
We also have a problem with deteriorating quality. With many more students but the same equipment and infrastructure, quality is bound to deteriorate. And the number of teachers has not kept up with the number of students and the student-teacher ratio has also dropped. These are some of the biggest challenges for me. This is why the AUF has decided to put at the heart of its strategy the problem of accompanying employability with innovative and different proposals.
In a world dominated by English, don’t you have the impression that French is in a rear-guard battle?
Not at all. A rear-guard battle exists when languages and cultures are opposed. This is not our purpose or our philosophy or our way of doing things. It is not about replacing other languages, be it English or other international languages such as Spanish, Arabic or others, with French. We state loud and clear that we work in a multilingual world and that multilingualism is an absolute necessity. We are academics and encourage our students to learn as many languages as possible.
Every time a student learns an additional language, they gain additional tools, skills, and culture. The issue, for us, is settled. We are not against other languages but beside them. We are simply an organisation that is part of a worldwide movement to promote the French language and culture. This means that our role is also to highlight what the French language can bring to young people who, tomorrow, aspire to an international career and a better life.
I am always surprised to hear, that in some of our countries, English is opposed to French or other languages. We know that the world needs several languages, and that young people are capable of learning them as early as elementary school. These are additional strengths that can be gained. I am not against introducing English in French-speaking countries. Without opposing it to French which already exists as an acquired wealth.
We are in a very open state of mind that accompanies the reality of the world. The trend toward multilingualism is both international and local because people also value their ancestral language. This is not contradictory in today’s world and is part of its evolution.
Many countries suffer from the problem of transforming knowledge into skills. What are the tools to address the lack of entrepreneurial culture?
I agree this culture is missing. At the AUF, we have a very clear position on the issue of entrepreneurship. First, we make it clear that entrepreneurship is one of the solutions, not the solution to unemployment. Often, people believe that anyone with a university degree can become an entrepreneur tomorrow and create jobs. We know, with hindsight and experience, that this is not true.
On the other hand, entrepreneurship is one of the interesting solutions and, for it to succeed, it must be a long-term solution. It is not enough to talk about entrepreneurship at the end of a university course when a young person is already over twenty years old and has never been prepared for it. The question of taking initiative, curiosity, and organisation, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about in the end. This must be done progressively from primary to secondary school and then be concretised in higher education to leave with both a diploma and a project.
Concretely, the AUF offers training in the entrepreneurial spirit to all. These are skills of taking initiative, being well organised, and of general culture. This is valid for all disciplines, at all ages and at all times. We are doing a training programme for teachers who want to become coaches, tutors, advisors, and not classic teachers. The role of these coaches is to detect, among all the young people who follow entrepreneurial training courses, those who have a typical profile capable of going to the end of the creative value chain. We support the creation of a company or a start-up.
We also propose to governments to improve the success rate of incubators. One of the reasons why African incubators often fail is because there is no selection of candidates at the entrance. We propose a pre-incubation approach by learning about entrepreneurship and selecting profiles that can go all the way. In ten African countries, we have launched with the ministries of education the status of a student entrepreneur. This is a great innovation that I launched when I was Minister of Higher Education and Research in Tunisia, and it is a project that has been very successful.
From the pilot projects in Tunisia and Morocco, we will implement this project in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The idea is to offer students who volunteer to take entrepreneurship training courses in parallel with their studies. Later in the programme, optional subjects are replaced by the student’s entrepreneurial project. Those who succeed leave after two or three years with both their diploma and a project for which they have had a professional and academic coach throughout their studies.
How do your institutions deal with the issue of artificial intelligence and the disappearance of certain professions?
These are of course civilisational questions. As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, many people are beginning to become aware of its scope. We are doing what we do best: mobilising expertise to tell us what to do about these developments. Our annual World Francophonie Science Week event will take place from October 25 to 28 in Cairo. I am very happy that it will be held in an Arabic and English-speaking country that is asking to host a major event like this. We will talk about the impact of artificial intelligence on the daily life of citizens.
It is not so much the technological evolution that worries us, because it is natural and will continue. There will always be very good engineers who will improve the performance of technology even more. What we are not yet able to fully understand, and grasp is the impact of these changes on our daily lives as consumers, citizens, and simply members of society. We are mobilising sociologists, historians, jurists, and ethics experts who will articulate this incredible technology, unexpected just a few years ago, with everyday life.
How do you intend to use the power you have to transform reality with the tools at your disposal?
I have always been an academic and will always be one. That’s the scientific and rational side I always try to have with me. Besides that, I have had some experience in the field of entrepreneurship. Being an expert in management and governance, I also know the imperatives of the economy and the constraints of an economic operator. And I had the chance, without having made a political career, to be for almost four years a minister in the government of a developing country. This allowed me to understand the political and balance issues at the international level.
This political skill, plus the entrepreneurial skill mixed with that of a professor, allow me to give some answers to the complexity of the world we live in. I try to help my organisation in this sense. I am not the only one. The advantage of our organisation is that we are a lot of academics focused on governance and management and not only on the theoretical or fundamental aspects of science.