Higher ed­u­ca­tion in Africa: Start of a new golden age?

The Herald (Zimbabwe) - - Feature / Crossword & Cartoons - Fred Swaniker

IN FE­BRU­ARY 1997, his­tory was made in a fairly non­de­script build­ing in down­town Ad­dis Ababa. The African Vir­tual Univer­sity (AVU) was born. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from uni­ver­si­ties in six African na­tions in­clud­ing Kenya, Ghana and Zim­babwe, along with their re­spec­tive fi­nance min­is­ters, came to­gether to in­au­gu­rate the first pan-African project in ed­u­ca­tion.

In its am­bi­tion, the World Bank-funded ini­tia­tive aimed to bol­ster ac­cess, al­beit re­motely, to higher ed­u­ca­tion for many Africans and pro­vide a plat­form for aca­demics, par­tic­u­larly those in the sci­ences, to build new an­nals of lo­cal knowl­edge.

Twenty years later, AVU has grad­u­ated over 60 000 stu­dents across the con­ti­nent, by any ac­count a mi­nus­cule achieve­ment when coun­ter­poised against the tow­er­ing (and un­met) de­mand for higher ed­u­ca­tion in Africa.

But AVU has pro­vided a shiny thread that weaves through less in­spir­ing re­sponses to the prob­lem; years of stu­dent protests, strikes by univer­sity work­ers, and un­sound pol­icy re­sponses by gov­ern­ments. The #FeesMustFall stu­dent protests in South Africa, a coun­try with one of the best-re­sourced but also most un­equal higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in Africa, con­tin­ues the broader nar­ra­tive of in­equal­ity and ex­clu­sion in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem across Africa.

Yet the prob­lem is larger than its symp­toms. What is the heart of the is­sue here is whether Africa’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem as it cur­rently stands is ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing its role – pro­duc­ing high cal­i­bre grad­u­ates with the skills to drive the con­ti­nent’s devel­op­ment for­ward.

There is no sim­ple an­swer to the ques­tion, nor is there a one-size-fits-all for­mula. Rather, we must look into the past to un­der­stand how Africa’s univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem came to be, and lessons for the fu­ture, as we work to cor­rect our sys­tems of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Sa­muel Ajayi Crowther was a Yoruba man who, by the age of 13, had been cap­tured by Fu­lani raiders on the coast of West Africa, sold to Por­tuguese slave traders and then res­cued, quite dra­mat­i­cally, en route to Amer­ica by Bri­tish Naval of­fi­cers. In 1827, as he turned 18, Crowther re­ceived a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion for the first time at the Chris­tian In­sti­tute at Fourah Bay, an in­sti­tute of fur­ther learn­ing set up by his guardians from the Lon­don Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety, in what is now Sierra Leone.

Crowther, chris­tened af­ter a renowned mem­ber of the English clergy, was a bril­liant stu­dent. His aca­demic promise even­tu­ally led him to the gates of Ox­ford Univer­sity. He would be­come the first and most in­flu­en­tial African bishop of the Angli­can Church in West Africa.

Crowther was one of the early mem­bers of what came to be known as the “African Ed­u­cated Elite” - in­di­vid­u­als cul­tur­ally and so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally set apart from their kith and kin be­cause of their West­ern ed­u­ca­tion and ac­cul­tur­a­tion. It is this elite that would lead their na­tions into in­de­pen­dence, and in the decades fol­low­ing, es­tab­lish the foun­da­tions of mod­ern Africa.

As a so­cial group, this elite emerged in the 1920s and 30s, the decades when colo­nial ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies en­cour­aged the es­tab­lish­ment of pre­mier mis­sion schools, some of which still ex­ist to­day, such as the École nor­male supérieure Wil­liam Ponty in Sene­gal, Achi­mota in Ghana, the Gor­don Memo­rial Col­lege in Khar­toum and Al­liance High School and St Mary’s in Kenya.

These in­sti­tu­tions, which his­to­rian Martin Mered­ith calls “the nurs­eries of the new African elites”, were built to de­velop African re­cruits for the lower rungs of the civil ser­vice and, by an ac­ci­dent of his­tory, ed­u­cated the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the com­ing gen­er­a­tion. Elite na­tion­al­ist van­guard By the late 1950s, this elite - out­side South Africa - to­talled only about 8 000, a small num­ber of univer­sity grad­u­ates that was to form the van­guard of na­tion­al­ist strug­gles for free­dom for an African pop­u­la­tion of about 200 mil­lion. With in­de­pen­dence, they rose to power on a plat­form of hope, promised free­doms, pros­per­ity and em­pow­er­ment.

The vi­sions they had for their na­tions were lav­ish and un­der­stand­ably so: ed­u­ca­tion was to be uni­ver­sal, as would health­care and em­ploy­ment – courtesy, in part, to ap­pro­pri­ated land be­ing re­turned to its orig­i­nal own­ers. But these hopes of devel­op­ment were go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to re­alise with such a small and con­cen­trated pop­u­la­tion of ed­u­cated cit­i­zens.

At the time, only 16 per­cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion on the con­ti­nent was lit­er­ate and nearly half of those who re­ceived at least a sec­ondary school ed­u­ca­tion were con­cen­trated in Ghana and Nige­ria. Few coun­tries had more than 200 stu­dents re­ceiv­ing some form of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion dur­ing the pe­riod. The num­bers were even more daunt­ing in cer­tain lo­cales: in Nyasa­land (now Malawi) only 28 Africans had re­ceived a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion by 1959; in North­ern Rhode­sia (later known as Zam­bia) this num­ber was 35.

For the first time in our his­tory, we are poised to build in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing that are uniquely African, in­formed by the needs of our economies and, most im­por­tantly, within reach for many of our youth.

In for­mer French colonies, in­sti­tu­tions like the Univer­sity of Dakar only be­gan ad­mit­ting African stu­dents in 1957 as de­coloni­sa­tion was be­com­ing an im­pend­ing re­al­ity.

In South Africa, the ad­vent of apartheid led to the in­tro­duc­tion of “Bantu” ed­u­ca­tion, in 1953, that trans­formed ed­u­ca­tion re­ceived by the black stu­dents at ev­ery level from pri­mary school to univer­sity. Schools that served black, In­dian or coloured stu­dents were poorly funded. They only re­ceived a tenth of the na­tional ed­u­ca­tion bud­get and al­most a third of their teach­ers were deemed un­der-qual­i­fied. What is more, these schools were not free, there­fore only fam­i­lies that could af­ford them had ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.

Uni­ver­si­ties as po­lit­i­cal in­stru­ments

In the years fol­low­ing in­de­pen­dence, the lack of African pro­fes­sion­als ready to run gov­ern­ment ush­ered in a new phase of devel­op­ment for African uni­ver­si­ties. In tan­dem, re­cently formed African gov­ern­ments be­lieved that ed­u­ca­tion was a cru­cial con­duit for so­cial trans­for­ma­tion. There­fore, schools were poised to de­liver on na­tional devel­op­ment poli­cies and, as a re­sult, uni­ver­si­ties were po­si­tioned as cru­cial po­lit­i­cal in­stru­ments.

In the 1960s, Tom Mboya’s pi­o­neer­ing “Air­lift” schol­ar­ships were part of this move­ment. The trade union­ist and even­tual cab­i­net min­is­ter wanted to pre­pare fel­low Kenyans to take on the chal­lenge of build­ing their new na­tion. From the coun­try’s eight mil­lion strong pop­u­la­tion, 800 stu­dents were cho­sen to re­ceive fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion in the US and Canada.

Among them were the late No­bel Lau­re­ate, Pro­fes­sor Wan­gari Maathai, and Barack Obama Sr, who would be­come an im­por­tant gov­ern­ment econ­o­mist, pub­lish­ing sem­i­nal pa­pers on na­tional plan­ning. Obama and Maathai, along with other Air­lift ben­e­fi­cia­ries, went on to teach at the Univer­sity of Nairobi, the old­est ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try, which would take over 40 years to grow from a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of 2 768 in 1970 to the 68 000 it serves to­day.

The 1970s were the golden age of the African univer­sity. In 1973, lead­ers of ma­jor African uni­ver­si­ties met in Ac­cra to make a his­toric dec­la­ra­tion that their in­sti­tu­tions were more than just cor­ri­dors of learn­ing but car­ried with them the re­spon­si­bil­ity of build­ing new na­tions and ac­cord­ing them new so­cial iden­ti­ties.

Now more than ever, the African univer­sity was poised to de­liver on the am­bi­tions of post-in­de­pen­dence. These in­sti­tu­tions were un­der pres­sure to con­trib­ute di­rectly to na­tional devel­op­ment plans and im­me­di­ately im­pact na­tional iden­tity and so­cial wel­fare, al­beit through a state monopoly on ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion.

This was a heavy bur­den. Be­fore these uni­ver­si­ties could de­liver what was ex­pected of them, they needed to build their own foun­da­tions as in­sti­tu­tions. How­ever, due to eco­nomic pres­sures in the 1980s, state fund­ing for many of these uni­ver­si­ties fell sharply. At the same time, stu­dent en­rol­ment con­ti­nent-wide grew from 337 000 in 1980 to an es­ti­mated 542 700 by 1990.

This caused a com­plex dy­namic at many of Africa’s uni­ver­si­ties. Ex­pen­di­tures per stu­dent, mea­sured in con­stant terms, fell by about two-thirds dur­ing this pe­riod, with cut­backs in re­search, staff devel­op­ment, li­brary ac­qui­si­tions, and main­te­nance. This ush­ered in a trend of de­cline within ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion that we still see to­day.

Need­less to say, many of these pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties had to find al­ter­na­tive chan­nels of in­come, much to the detri­ment of ac­cess. An ex­am­ple is Mak­erere Univer­sity in Uganda, once the pre­mier in­sti­tu­tion in the so­cial sci­ences and hu­man­i­ties in the re­gion, at­tract­ing in­tel­lects like No­bel Lau­re­ate V S Naipaul and cel­e­brated scholar Mah­mood Mam­dani to its halls. In 1980, any­one at­tend­ing Mak­erere was funded via gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship.

Ten years later, re­spond­ing to fi­nan­cial con­straints, the univer­sity be­gan ad­mit­ting its first fee-pay­ing stu­dents to study in par­al­lel with those re­ceiv­ing state spon­sor­ship. By 2011, 55 per­cent of the univer­sity’s in­come came from pri­vate stu­dent tu­ition. Mak­erere’s story is in­dica­tive of the ex­pe­ri­ence of a num­ber of African uni­ver­si­ties whose need to sur­vive de­railed their ini­tial char­ter.

Ini­tia­tives like the AVU are a tan­gi­ble re­sponse to the pre­vail­ing prob­lem of ac­cess. How­ever, they can­not act alone. Since the 1990s, pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties in Africa have been grow­ing in num­ber and have been sup­ported by both gov­ern­ment and in­ter­na­tional stake­hold­ers.

They have also been ac­knowl­edged as im­por­tant part­ners in pro­vid­ing young Africans with ad­di­tional av­enues for ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion.

What uni­ver­si­ties in the pri­vate sec­tor can do is fo­cus on the skilling of labour and, in tan­dem, of­fer rel­e­vant mar­ket skills needed to sur­vive in the labour mar­ket.

Be­yond ac­cess, high qual­ity pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions are uniquely placed to re­de­fine the pur­pose and ef­fi­cacy of the univer­sity within the African con­text. Where the con­ti­nent’s pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions were never re­branded from the “devel­op­ment” im­per­a­tive ac­corded to them in the 1970s, pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges are free to align the pur­pose of their teach­ing and re­search with the needs of Africa to­day.

They can use in­no­va­tive mod­els and up­dated ped­a­gog­i­cal meth­ods to de­liver high qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion at a low cost to those who need it. Much like the sit­u­a­tion of the 1950s and 60s, these uni­ver­si­ties have the unique po­ten­tial to ed­u­cate the lead­ers of the next gen­er­a­tion and, now, they can do this at scale.

For the first time in our his­tory, we are poised to build in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing that are uniquely African, in­formed by the needs of our economies and, most im­por­tantly, within reach for many of our youth. In or­der to do this, we must re­turn to first prin­ci­ples. Our uni­ver­si­ties can still be crit­i­cal driv­ers of lo­cal devel­op­ment, as was orig­i­nally es­poused at their for­ma­tion. What uni­ver­si­ties in the pri­vate sec­tor can do is fo­cus on the skilling of labour and, in tan­dem, of­fer rel­e­vant mar­ket skills needed to sur­vive in the labour mar­ket. They can do this at a lower cost and, most im­por­tantly, at scale.

This is a new age of African ed­u­ca­tion, which – if har­nessed ac­cord­ingly to fo­cus on high qual­ity – can help usher Africa into a new era of pros­per­ity.

Ed­u­ca­tion can change the world

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