Things still fall apart in spite of the wishful words

Higher Education in Mozambique - Higher Education in Tanzania - Makerere University in Transition 1993-2000 - Strategic Planning and Higher Education Management in Africa - University Education in Uganda
January 28, 2005

These books are addressed to educationists and policy planners in developing countries, particularly in Africa. The first three provide snapshots of the dominant university in each country covered - Eduardo Mondlane, Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and Makerere. They are published under the auspices of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (composed of four major American foundations), which promises similar volumes on Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Like other engines of globalisation, the partnership selects beneficiaries that espouse a Western agenda: democracy, decentralisation and economic liberalisation. By commissioning African researchers, the partnership intends to stimulate local talent and galvanise other prospective donors. The ultimate goal, local sustainability, remains far on the horizon.

The other two books under review are at once local in origin and meant for a wider readership, and they convey invaluable lessons for universities wishing to become truly African. Matthew Luhanga and his colleagues describe the wrenching process of reform at the University of Dar es Salaam. A.B.K. Kasozi, in addition to his analysis of Ugandan universities, sounds a clarion call for revolutionary change. His proposals for ripping a still-colonial system up by the roots and planting an indigenised replacement depend on cooperation among politicians, academics and donors. Unfortunately, such a revolution is less likely than partial, incremental change.

All five books - handsomely produced, locally published and too expensive for Africans - contain valuable data on strategic planning. For better or for worse, the Partnership books, which are also being published in London, will reach a larger audience. Although holistic understanding is required for comprehensive policy planning, none of the books discusses the full range of post-secondary education.

The books, all of which should have been better edited, discuss drearily familiar problems, many stemming from the gross underfunding endemic in most African tertiary institutions. It is their accounts of solutions that will most interest the target audience. Other countries, for example, could learn from the Mozambican experience of means-based regional scholarships and other ways of rectifying regional and gender imbalances. Private universities in Mozambique and Uganda have shown creativity in curriculum and management.

UDSM's institutional transformation programme is already seen as a model for other universities. Information and communications technology is well advanced at Eduardo Mondlane, which sent experts to help UDSM set up its VSAT satellite system - an example of South-South cooperation. Staff development at UDSM encourages sandwich doctoral programmes, whereby candidates for Dar doctorates do their thesis research at home and obtain information, advice and technical facilities from cooperating foreign institutions.

Positive changes at Makerere have flowed from a loosening of government control and consequent greater autonomy, which all the books agree is essential for reform. Makerere's affirmative action programme for women has been adopted at Dar. The Makerere and Eduardo Mondlane volumes reproduce student survey forms that underline a move away from an authoritarian academic culture. Makerere leads the continent in income generation by privatised units, by consultancy bureaus and, above all, by an enormous rise in privately funded students and a concomitant drop in government scholarships. Such financial changes signal greater sustainability, but they do not reduce poverty-driven inequities; indeed, education policies in all four countries leave long-standing social inequities almost untouched.

For all their mountainous problems, the universities described here are among the brighter lights in Africa. The Partnership books maintain an air of optimism by downplaying problems (one of them, says a staff member, is "a praise-song to the vice-chancellor"). They disguise ethnic prejudice and rivalries as "regional" inequities. They recommend local postgraduate training without explaining how underresourced universities can mount credible programmes. Except for Mkude et al , they barely acknowledge the effect of HIV/Aids on universities. They slight South-South cooperation as a way of maximising human and material resources. In advocating vastly more ICT, they slide over such fundamental difficulties as unreliable electricity and telephone infrastructure and restricted access to computers and the internet. Except for Kasozi, they mention libraries only in connection with ICT, although none of the universities discussed has adequate library holdings. A "good" library, Kasozi writes, holds 50 books for each student. Makerere, with Dar the best endowed, has a ratio of 1:32.

The non-Partnership books face unpleasant realities more frankly: weak leadership, salaries that (as Ugandans joke) provide a "leaving" rather than a living wage, and the colonial legacy of sclerotic exam-ridden structures.

Challenges and opportunities are key words - along with the wishful words "should", "just" and "will". With tens of thousands of African students clamouring for admission, the looming crisis can be solved only by the kind of revolution for which Kasozi calls. These books are essential reading for leaders and planners wishing to avoid the reinvention of wheels. For higher education in Africa to become relevant, more studies by imaginative Africans are urgently needed - along with bold action by democratic leaders.

Carol Sicherman is the author of Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922-2000 . She has published on African higher education as well as on Ngugi wa Thiong'o and other African authors.

Higher Education in Mozambique: A Case Study

Author - A Case Study By Mouzinho Mário, Peter Fry, Lisbeth Levey and Arlindo Chilundo
Publisher - James Currey
Pages - 114
Price - £9.95
ISBN - 0 85255 430 3

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