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

Higher education in Africa: start of a new golden age?
  • PublishedMay 19, 2017

African policy makers have always hoped that higher education would provide a key pillar of development, growth and social inclusion. Yet the history of higher education in Africa has become a story of inequality and exclusion. The challenge today is not to “fix” problems faced by universities by finding more resources; it is to see the problem for what it is and find a solution that works. Fred Swaniker looks at the history of higher education in Africa and offers some suggestions.

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 miniscule 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 200m. 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 back 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% 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 enrollment 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% 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.

Written By
New African

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