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Papers presented at the Symposium on
5 December 1996, Santiago, Chile

(held in conjunction with the 43rd Session of the Council of the United Nations University)


Donald Ekong
Scholar-in-Residence, The Ford Foundation Office for South Africa, Johannesburg

The university has been a key element in the development of the countries of Africa. In the run-up to or shortly after political independence, a university was usually one of the indispensable institutions which was set up in most of the countries where there was none that had already been established by the outgoing colonial administration. Everywhere the establishment of the university was celebrated as an event of major national significance because universities were seen as a principal instrument for national development and their tasks were to :

  • produce the qualified human resources to run the administration and the professions in the newly independent countries; and

  • generate and apply relevant research for the development of their countries.

At political independence, ending the obvious dependence in most African countries on expatriate personnel from the erstwhile colonial power for running public and social services, including the civil service, education, and medical services, was an urgent political and emotional goal. The consensus is that this goal has been largely achieved, and it is recognised as a major contribution of the universities to their countries.

On the other hand, for the mass of the African population, the most pressing problems on which their survival primarily depends have been and still are those of poverty, ignorance, preventable tropical diseases, unemployment, and lack of decent housing. Hopes that with independence the universities would help to solve these problems have been largely disappointed. Not only has there been over the years for the mass of the people little visible improvement in the quality of their lives. The impact of the universities on efforts to solve their problems have been at best only marginal, resulting in general disenchantment with the expected role of research in the universities.

Throughout Africa, universities seem to be in one crisis or the other although for some, the prospects seem to be more promising than for most. In several countries, the crisis is deep and threatens the future of the universities as recognised centres of learning. The crisis in most countries reflects the worsening economic circumstances of that country and relates to declining government financial support, resulting in turn in deteriorating physical facilities and the quality of learning environment in the universities, with consequent decline in their capacities as institutions of learning and the quality of their services and products. These problems are frequently discussed and analysed, especially with regard to their origin and impact. Of critical significance and urgency, however, are the approaches which national higher education authorities and the institutions themselves are adopting to address the issues and what, as a consequence, the prospects are for the future of the university and its role in Africa.

An unresolved issue which is still topical today is that of an identity for the African university, an identity that is uniquely African and derives from African cultural experience and environment and reflects the needs of the African people. Should the African university continue as it appears to have been doing to grow on the roots and structures transplanted from Europe through colonial rule, or can it shed its colonial roots and image and re-orient itself based predominantly on African cultural and historical experience? Generally the universities in Africa are committed to what is usually described as the traditional and universal mission of the university, that is, creating knowledge, disseminating it, and supporting its application. In fact, over the years, even within the framework of the structures which they inherited from Europe, the universities have made important advances in knowledge about Africa and have achieved significant transformation to an African orientation in key areas of research and content of courses in the academic disciplines, especially in the humanities, social sciences, and the professions.

In the process they have contributed new perspectives which have enriched and helped to transform the disciplines themselves. (Bates et al, 1993). It may be expected that this will be continue to be the academic direction of the development of the university in Africa.

A widely canvassed and usually accepted view is that the African university should be a developmental university (Yesufu , 1973). Notwithstanding its popularity, how the concept has been approached in the universities has varied considerably and whether the developmental activities which they have carried out have been of much value in advancing development or the traditional mission of the university has been questioned (Coleman and Court , 1993). Two basic problems are : (1) the concept of development itself, and (2) what the proper role of the university in it should be.

Although what constitutes under-development is not in doubt, Africa seems to rely on others for conceptualising and designing its strategies of development. These have shifted with changing international donor fads about development: from import substitution strategies to infra-structure development, then agriculture, food production, and rural development, and now environmentally sustainable development; from manpower development to basic education for all, then capacity building, and now lifelong education; from planned economy and state monopoly and state capitalism to what has been called the new religion of today--privatisation and market forces; then came human rights and multi-party democracy as the foundation for development, etc. It should be a priority goal of development research, which is well represented in universities throughout Africa, to define a clear African perspective on the development process that would not only inform national development policies and priorities, but also give guidance to the various academic disciplines towards a developmental orientation in their research and educational programmes and in evolving appropriate and relevant extension services to serve the development community.

An issue of crucial importance for the future of the university in Africa is governance in terms of both linkages with external stakeholders, especially governments, as well as the internal management of the institution. Conflicts over governance issues have sometimes resulted in crises which threaten the future if not the very survival of the university in a number of countries. What seems to be commonly accepted in much of Africa is that the university being a key instrument of national development, which is a responsibility of the government, and as the government is the most important source of university funding, it is both the right and duty of the government to directly control the university, including its policies, programmes, and personnel. In most African countries, a notable exception being South Africa, the head of the university is appointed by the government and, in some universities, it is also the government which appoints the deans and department heads. There are countries where the university rector and deans change with a change of government. Particularly significant is the fact that most people in the universities seem to regard such a close involvement with the government to be in the interest of the university, especially as they expect it to be a guarantee for continued government interest and support.

The relationship between different strategies of governmental regulation of universities and the capacities of the institutions to manage change in their environment has been analysed in a study of universities in Europe (van Vught, 1989). While economic factors may have been at the root of the current crisis in the universities in Africa, a more creative management of the challenges that confronted them might have saved the universities (some of which had attained significant international reputation as centres of learning), from the deplorable decline that has taken place in many countries.

The university is unique among public institutions in that for fulfilling its functions, it relies more critically than any other kind of institution does on the initiative, intellectual capacity, and creativity of its personnel. In Africa, as elsewhere, there is often confusion not only between the concepts of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, but also about how these relate to the effective performance of the functions of a university.

It has been observed that "a great part of the genius and drive of higher education in American life lies in its strong tradition of institutional autonomy" (Patterson, 1994). African universities have in the main not performed well in the face of the economic difficulties in their countries. If they continue to be governed and managed as they are now, effectively as departments in the civil service of their country, it is doubtful whether they will have the flexibility to respond adequately to the demands and challenges of the current global changes in the nature of higher education. Consequently, to some observers, African governments may ironically be undermining their own intentions for higher education through their current strategies of control of their universities (Ajayi et al, 1996). From this perspective and from other considerations, including in particular the prospect of attracting additional resources for higher education from private sources, the time may have come for African countries that have not done so yet to give more serious consideration to the possibility of permitting the establishment of private universities. Private universities exist already in several African countries, including Egypt, Kenya, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Other countries will need to study what lessons there may be to learn from the experiences of these countries and the problems and impact of private higher education.

A disturbing consequence of government control of the university has been its impact on internal management processes. Senior university officials who are appointed and can be removed from office by the government have usually tended to regard themselves accountable only to the government and lack credibility among their colleagues. Even where a tradition of collegiality and participatory management had been inherited from colonial rule, authoritarian practices have increasingly replaced the traditional processes of consultation and participation in decision making. The result frequently is marginalisation of other members of the university community who in frustration become indifferent to the affairs of the university if not outright hostile to the institution. One of the principal conclusions of a recent symposium on the future of the university in Africa was a call for a new environment of partnership and cooperation among all stakeholders to save and revitalise the university (AAU, 1995).

South Africa has embarked on one of the most innovative processes of transformation of its higher education system ever undertaken anywhere, involving a thorough study of the fundamental issues by research task teams across the country, and participation of all stakeholders in the discussion of the issues-from students and support staff to senior academics, the private and the public sector, non-governmental organisations, and the government. The outcome and the lessons learnt are likely to be of immense value to the higher education community throughout Africa and elsewhere.

To some extent, the above issues have been largely concerns which relate to the current circumstances in many African countries. In addition, there are major changes that are taking place in the global economic environment and which have resulted in new challenges to the university worldwide, including the African university. These changes are characterised by the growing integration of the world economy, the explosive developments in science and technology, especially in information and communications technology, and the central role of knowledge as the new engine that drives development. The impact of these changes on Africa has been devastating. African economies which depended and still depend on export of primary agricultural and mineral products collapsed and were marginalised as the demand for and significance of primary raw materials declined in the new world economy. The changes have also resulted in the role of the state in the economy and as employer being pushed back with consequent large-scale unemployment especially of university graduates. African countries can expect to survive in this new environment in which national economies now work as units of the world economy only if they become internationally competitive in production, services, and management. As competitiveness is increasingly dependent on "knowledge and information applied to production" (Carnoy et al, 1993), the role of the university as an instrument for producing and disseminating knowledge has become critical. The African university must thus position itself to be able to make strategic choices about its mission and re-orient its focus to produce not merely graduates for the civil service but graduates endowed with high-level skills in an increasing variety of fields which will provide the human capital that African countries need in the new competitive economic order.

Emphasis will have to be on the formation of graduates who have the flexibility to respond to changing demands in the economy and who are capable of self-employment. With the rapid advances in knowledge, structures will be required to provide a space in the university as well as encouragement for life-long learning. The implication is that the university should be able to cater for a variety of learners and a variety of learning needs through diversification of its programmes, curriculum contents, and mode of delivery. Currently in much of Africa the university has a virtual monopoly as the source of learning. But this will change and should change as other forms of higher education are developed and have already begun to be developed in some countries. Only through creativity, innovation, and flexibility in catering for diverse learning needs will the university be able to retain a leading position in terms of relevance to the needs of society.

A further challenge for Africa is the danger of new forms of dependence which could be just as devastating as the current forms if not even more so, that is, dependence on knowledge and knowledge application processes from elsewhere. The challenge for the African university is to contribute new useful knowledge and application processes that derive from the African environment and draw from African experience and ingenuity. There is also an urgent need to increase participation in higher education from all sections of the population-currently participation in higher education in Africa is the lowest in the world-with a view to raising the collective capacity and productivity of African society. Both aspects are essential for enhancing African competitiveness in the global market place.

Related to all of these are the issues of excellence and equity in access. The prospects for public commitment to the future of the university are assured if there is public perception that policies relating to access to the university are just and equitable. This is a frequently discussed and in some countries a politically highly sensitive issue. With regard to excellence there has always been public demand throughout Africa for excellence and quality in African higher education institutions, especially the universities, because the people demand assurance that what they are being given is the "real thing."

It is these concerns which led to the setting up of special structures in many African countries to monitor quality, particularly in the awarding of qualifications and in the appointment and promotion of academic personnel. However the claim sometimes made of a "universal gold standard of excellence" against which the university in Africa must be measured is challenged as a distraction from the legitimate demand for identity and relevance to African needs. On the other hand, the pursuit of excellence, in terms of attaining the highest standard of quality in whatever the aspirations and the choices relating to the purpose of the institution may be, needs to be promoted as an indispensable element of the culture of the university. It is only through the imperative of excellence that the university can be effective in the performance of its functions. Excellence on its part has a cost, especially in terms of resources, human and material, as well as devotion. A damaging consequence of the current university crisis is the enormous loss of human capacity through emigration of talented faculty to other countries and other occupations, resulting in reluctance of talented students to consider careers as the next generation of academics. To rehabilitate physical facilities which have deteriorated will be easier to achieve than to reassemble talented people in a university that has lost them. African countries must, therefore, come to terms with the demands of quality and excellence and with the reality that the future of their universities will depend on creating or restoring and retaining the culture of quality and excellence.

A number of these concerns are not unique or peculiar to Africa but need to be articulated in the African context to underline the reality that there is now a global market place into which Africa has willy-nilly been drawn and where it must assert itself and compete with others. In this situation the role of the university will be crucial.


Ajayi, J. F. Ade, Goma, Lameck K. H., and Johnson, G. Ampah (1996). The African Experience with Higher Education. Accra: The Association of African Universities; London: James Curry; and Athens: Ohio University Press.

Association of African Universities, Accra (1995). The African University in the 1990's and Beyond.

Bates, Robert H., Mudimbe, V. Y., and O'Barr, Jean (ed.) (1993). Africa and the Disciplines- The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Carnoy, Martin, Castells, Manuel, Cohen, Stephen S., and Cardoso, Fernando Henrique (1993). The New Global Economy in the Information Age: Reflections on Our Changing World. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press.

Coleman, James S., with Court, David (1993 ). University Development in the Third World-The Rockefeller Foundation Experience. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Patterson, Franklin (1994), in Martin, James, Samels, James E., and Associates (ed.). Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

van Vught, Frans A. (ed.) (1989). Government Strategies and Innovation in Higher Education. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Yesufu, T. M. (ed.) (1973). Creating the African University - Emerging Issues in the 1970s. Ibadan: Oxford University Press.

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