Boom and bust in Africa

The African Experience with Higher Education
April 25, 1997

The Association of African Universities celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1996 by publishing this volume examining the historical background of the universities of Africa and the issues facing them today. It excludes only Mediterranean Africa and the traditionally "white" universities of South Africa. The three authors are distinguished academics, all former vice chancellors, assisted by Wanjiku Mwotia, a programme officer in the AAU.

The historical background starts with a brief canter taking in African esoteric learning, Ptolemaic Alexandria, the ancient seats of Muslim learning, and ending with Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, affiliated to Durham University in 1876. Then follows a survey of the grudging attempts, up to 1945, made by the colonial governments to satisfy African demands for higher education and their own manpower requirements, none of which included founding a university.

The postwar years brought the sudden foundation of centres of higher education all over Africa. They were designed as centres of excellence, on which the governments of Britain, France and Belgium lavished money to build splendid campuses where students would receive an education of the same standard as students in Europe. Decolonised Africa entered independence with an impressive array of them. But the governments saddled with maintaining them were chiefly impressed by their apparent irrelevance to their countries' immediate problems (apart from providing cadres for the civil service), and to their still being under ex-colonial supervision. Swiftly they were turned into national universities under government control. The authors of this volume blame the African teaching staffs for a supine readiness to give up the academic freedom and administrative autonomy they had enjoyed. For their new masters soon brought the universities under strict political control. Often themselves balanced precariously in power, they tended to take staff or student opinion for subversion, to be answered, if need be, by police, or even military violence.

Meanwhile the African economies have steadily deteriorated, crippled by the policies of the World Bank and "the prevailing unjust international economic order". The universities are in a state of crisis. Those teachers who can, flee abroad, while students crowd into slum-like institutions that can no longer teach them adequately. It is a crisis the authors foresee lasting into the next century. But they still feel there are "strategies of reconstruction" that can save the universities, notably by persuading their governments that they can be agents for national development, offering particularly the communications and managerial skills still in short supply in Africa. But they insist that academic freedom and university autonomy must be restored.

There is also a chapter about the AAU, founded in 1967 to encourage cooperation between the African universities, with 120 member institutions. Despite financial difficulties it survives with donor support. It deserves congratulation for producing this timely, informative volume, as does the publisher, James Currey, who has now completed over ten years of publishing a fine collection of scholarly books on Africa.

Christopher Fyfe was reader in African history, University of Edinburgh.

The African Experience with Higher Education

Author - J. F. Ade Ajayi, Lameck K. H. Goma and G. Ampah Johnson
ISBN - 0 85255 734 5 and 733 7
Publisher - James Currey
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 6

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