Decolonisation of African universities ‘could reduce brain drain’

Higher education sectors born out of empire fail to meet local skill needs, says professor

April 16, 2024
Samburu people in traditional dresses perform local dance in Samburu, Kenya
Source: iStock/Ozbalci

For Toyin Falola, Nigerian education displays signs of colonialism at every level: from children singing nursery rhymes about sheep in a country where the animals typically don’t grow a fleece, to university philosophy departments following the ideals of Socrates and Plato.

Professor Falola, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, sees these and other examples of education shaped by the age of imperialism as key reasons why talented students sometimes struggle to find jobs in Africa after graduation – and why decolonisation, a practice that makes so many headlines in the West, needs to be a key focus in the countries that were themselves once part of European-led empires.

Higher education institutions in Africa, he has written, are either “created in the shadow of the colonial systems or established following the patterns left by colonial ideological relics”.

“Once you make that mistake your citizens will leave their country because they have to go to where their degrees maximise their income opportunities, can give them jobs, or find something meaningful to do,” Professor Falola told Times Higher Education.

“That very system is also devastating the very places where those universities are located because those universities are not connected in terms of job opportunities.”

Professor Falola, an expert in African history since the 19th century, argues that if the continent’s universities were organic creations, and not built in the colonial mould, they would have entire departments in geographically specific fields, such as plant medicine, food systems and environmental security.

Some of his remarks on indigenous practices and beliefs that he thinks should be studied at university have prompted headlines. But courses on witchcraft or magic can produce as much critical thinking as a degree in English history, Professor Falola argued.

And, he said, the decolonisation of education need not mean changing the study of subjects such as anatomy or chemistry, nor should it reduce global cooperation and research.

Professor Falola said a truly decolonised system would align higher education with the African economy and African ideology, and make use of the continent’s booming youth population.

“Hopefully African economies will become diversified; they will find use for the skills and human capacity we grow,” he said.

Campus resource: Decolonising the curriculum

“It’s the most promising continent today because of its youth demographics. Those are benefits they have to convert to advantage, and they should not use their money to train those skills and lose [graduates] to go and work in countries where they are witnessing demographic decline.”

Elelwani Ramugondo, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, said that given the disproportionate representation of thinkers and innovators from the West in academic disciplines, all universities have a responsibility for redress and the advancement of epistemic justice and freedom.

“In today’s globalised and interconnected world, a circulation of ideas through international mobility, on how to create a more humane world that also protects the environment and various natural ecosystems, can only serve humanity well,” she said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Not everything associated with colonists is bad. When the Roman colonists left Britain, the Celts and Anglo-Saxons kept the good things they had brought - Latin vocabulary, Christianity, Law, etc - and made their own way thereafter. It was the same when the Normans came - their French was absorbed into English.
Some pertinent comments but on the whole the understanding and representation of understanding about matter energy and fields is universal. F=ma is always a good starting point for ang society wishing to employ tools to develop an economy. When it comes to human beliefs and values that shape the social and political use of that knowledge, That's a bit more tricky. However, I would generally suggest steering clear of theocratic/patriarchal flavoured versions.