Dr Jamil Salmi captivated participants from 56 African Higher Education Centres of Excellence (ACE) attending the annual ACE 1 and ACE IMPACT meeting in Dakar, Senegal from 23-27 September 2019.

During the plenary session on institutional impact for ACE IMPACT held on the 25th September 2019 at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dr Salmi implored the Vice Chancellors to “dare to be different” in terms of how they led their universities.

He underscored the importance of building synergies across institutions and disciplines, breaking away from the structures and procedures of the past, building an enabling environment for creativity and innovation and promotion of genuine autonomy and full empowerment of staff.

Dr Salmi said that the road to academic excellence involved Vice Chancellors constantly challenging themselves and their teams – and continuously seeking to renew their institutions to keep improving. A very strong sense of urgency must be cultivated in order to make African universities stronger.

Disbursement Linked Indicator 7 (DLI 7)

The objective of this plenary session was to stimulate institutional engagement with Vice Chancellors/Rectors/Presidents and their ACE IMPACT Center, on disbursement linked indicator 7 (DLI 7) which focusses on Institutional Impact. The ACE IMPACT Project is results-based and tracks seven results that are connected to financial disbursements earnings. DLI 7 tracks four sub-results, namely:

  1. Meaningful university-wide regional strategy
  2. Open and merit-based selection of the head of university, head of department or dean
  3. Institution-wide International Accreditation
  4. Participation in PASET benchmarking exercise

DLI 7 gives flexibility for the ACE institutions to develop milestones based on their institutional needs and goals. University leadership is responsible for the implementation of DLI 7 and between 10-15 % of the ACE budget will be used to support institutional impact strengthening activities. Institutions with multiple centres are expected to develop a joint and coordinated plan for DLI 7.

The road to academic excellence….

Dr Salmi described the characteristics of a World-Class University as abundant resources (public budget resources, endowment revenues, tuition fees and research grants); concentration of talent (students, teaching staff and researchers) and favorable governance (leadership team, strategic vision, culture of excellence, autonomy, academic freedom and supportive regulatory frameworks). When these conditions are met, this leads to the production of top graduates, world class universities, leading-edge research and dynamic knowledge & technology transfer.

Are we investing enough?

The endowment of Harvard University is reported to be at US$35.7 billion – while 113 countries have Gross Domestic Products lower than Harvard’s endowment. Some US research universities receive up to 1 billion dollars in research grants annually. The situation is very different for the majority of African Universities – they are poorly funded.

Requirements to accelerate world-class African universities

Dr Salmi restated that inspirational leadership, vision and passion were vital to achieving academic excellence. Transformational leaders should facilitate capacity building through internationalization. African universities must become niche institutions offering niche programs. Attention must be paid to curriculum, pedagogical and managerial innovations. Strategic planning and benchmarking must be prioritized.

Words of caution

Dr Salmi warned against constructing the teaching facilities before designing the curriculum – the facilities must match the curriculum needs. University leaders must put in place favorable conditions to attract and keep talent because it is the people that will make a university world class. Leaders must avoid creating islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity – excellence must be an institutional culture. It is important to invest with sustainability in mind – because projects come and go but the institution’s impact strategy must be sustained. Leaders must keep an eye on international rankings – whether we like it or not they affect us. Lastly leaders must avoid the danger of imitating other universities – they must remember that their institutions are unique.


In conclusion Dr Jamil Salmi emphasized that university leaders must “take the long view”, i.e. think about the things that might happen in the future rather than only about the things that are happening now. He also probed leaders to reflect on what they could learn from top soccer teams in terms of how they are run. He reminded the participants about a quotation from Daniel Lincoln that says: “excellence, like all things of abiding value, is a marathon, not a sprint”.