In spite of its considerable achievements in the past three decades, the University of ABC finds itself in a precarious situation." Thus begins many a report by the World Bank or other external agents involved in African higher education. What it means is this: the state of universities in most African countries is very unhappy and needs serious attention. But there are also glimmers of hope.
African independence generated high hopes. Most national higher learning institutions were created or became the responsibility of governments in the 1960s. Like airlines, universities were seen as signs of national sovereignty and prestige and there were many valid developmental and economic reasons for their creation.
Because of lower staff and operational costs in the home country, it was expected that the cost of domestic higher education would be much lower than that in Europe or the United States. It was hoped that universities would become catalysts of national development, creating, preserving and disseminating knowledge applicable to the development process. Many of these hopes have been destroyed.
One generation after their foundation, African universities are struggling to remain viable institutions. Funding is chronically scarce. Buildings, equipment and teaching materials are missing, non-functional or in dire need of repair. In many countries academic staff salaries are laughably low, forcing educators and scientists to seek additional external work in the private sector (or informal economy) at the cost of their university activities. Research suffers particularly, being starved of the equipment, the academic journals and even the time required. Productivity is often low. There are examples in some universities of ratios of teaching staff to students of 1:3 and ratios of overall staff to students of almost 1:1. This results in high costs per student per year, which in some cases approach $10,000.
These costs horrify ministers of education who resent the fact that unduly high proportions of a tight national education budget are being devoted to a few students in national university. Neither are students, who receive full tuition and subsistence in many instances, content. In some cases these bursary payments amount to more than 50 per cent of the universities' budgets, while in one country a recent increase in bursaries has taken them above the national minimum wage. Despite being accorded an almost royal treatment by the norms of the country, there is much unrest. Campuses are being closed down periodically for both internal or external political reasons.
The causes of these problems are not unknown. They are, in fact, the same problems higher education has been struggling with worldwide, albeit magnified by the conditions on the African continent.
Government intervention has often proven counterproductive. Instead of giving the institution autonomy and holding its leadership accountable for the quality and quantity of output produced, governments have often sought to become directly involved in the affairs of their respective universities. Instead of a coherent framework for education policy, a patchwork of individual directives emerged.
Governments protected the national universities, objects of prestige as they were, for a long time without giving thought to alternative, private and non-university institutions of teaching. Some donors from the north, with the best of intentions, became deeply involved in policy experiments in some African countries. In addition, different donors rarely spoke with one voice, each backing priorities which suited their own developmental objectives. Under these circumstances, it would have been difficult for any university to implement coherent institutional strategies.
Finally, internal management structures are not geared towards productivity, autonomy and accountability, again, rarely an African phenomenon alone. Structures, which largely followed the British models of the colonial era, have not kept pace with the changing needs of the local environment, nor have they adapted managerial innovations from UK or elsewhere. But despite this generally desperate situation, change is taking place in some sub-Saharan African countries.
Although the signs of hope are rare, they may point the way to a brighter future. In Zambia, legislation in 1992 reduced the number of government nominees on the university council to two (out of ) and stopped the automatic appointment of the national president as university chancellor. At the University of Ghana new legislation on the chancellorship is following suit. Also in Zambia the university devoted time to a major review of its strategy and place in the community; the resulting strategic plan has been discussed with the government and has formed the basis for an agreement to reduce student numbers to improve quality. In contrast to elsewhere in Africa, the government accepted that the continual upwards pressure on student numbers affected the quality of the outcomes.
In Ghana, the university strategic plan was widely publicised and has led to an impressive commitment to the university from the private sector. One company has agreed to construct a research centre for the university, another is building a student hostel and more than 60 graduates are now being financed by private commercial interests. In Tanzania, the university has embarked on a process of strategic planning under the label "UDSM 2000", aiming to restructure university processes in academic and administrative fields with a view to optimal outcomes.
The role of the private sector in providing higher education is increasing. In Nigeria the national universities commission is about to select two or three preferred organisations to launch private universities. In Uganda and Kenya a number of private universities already coexist with the state sector.
The rebirth of Makerere University in Uganda is almost complete. Although it is heavily dependent on donors for much of the capital contributions, the Ugandan government contribution is substantial and a new act is in hand for the university. Among other factors, greatly improved salary levels are being promised.
One of the hardest political decisions for African governments continues to be raising the level of contributions from students, either to their tuition fees or their living costs. Zambia has led the way with its government agreeing that the university sets and recovers greatly increased tuition fees. Zambia illustrates another important process change; an agreement by the ministry of finance that the university can retain all its earnings from non-government sources and borrow and invest in commercial activities. This incentive to make commercial joint ventures has already led to some such joint ventures being formed.
The focus and impetus for many of these changes has come from institutional strategic plans. We estimate that at least 25 universities in sub-Saharan Africa have completed or are working on such plans. Once they have been formulated, such plans provide the university with a coherent framework to discuss its future with government and interested donors. If the plan has been developed in consultation with the university's external stakeholders, it will be a powerful tool to unite the university community around a common purpose and an equally strong lever in the interaction with government. Yet, the time for effective change is short. University education in Africa can survive and grow, but to do so, universities face challenges many times as severe as the difficulties experienced in industrialised nations.
John Fielden is director of the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service. The article was co-written with Max Otte, an international higher education management consultant.
Sheila meets one, John, a member of the maths department, who, it turns out, worked with her late husband and sister in law - 30 years ago.