With few African countries able to afford research universities, a developmental focus for the Commonwealth should be creating regional research institutions for clusters of countries, the 16th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers heard in Cape Town this week.
In his keynote speech to the three-yearly conference, Mahmood Mamdani, renowned African scholar, and Herbert Lehman, professor of government at Columbia University in New York, chartered the post-independence boom and then collapse of universities in Africa.
Only African countries with a dense network of universities - South Africa and Nigeria - appeared able to afford research universities, he said.
Smaller countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania needed to "collaborate to create a regional research university".
It was one of few focuses on higher education at the school-oriented conference, which had as its theme "Access to quality education: for the good of all". It was attended by some 1,000 delegates.
Secretary general Don McKinnon stressed that many of the 53 Commonwealth nations would not attain the Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education and equal access for girls.
But he said that progress had been made on six "action areas" decided at the 15th CCEM in Scotland. The Cape Town event saw the launch of a human rights curriculum for universities and a Commonwealth of Learning programme to strengthen distance learning in 24 small, low-income states.
Professor Mamdani argued that a meaningful role for the Commonwealth today would have to include reparations "for past injuries", starting with the "most aggrieved" and with higher education as the "strategic heart" of education.
He described two colonial periods, with a "sharp contrast between the emphasis on higher education in the early, robust colonial period of direct rule, and its near boycott in the period of indirect rule that followed the upsurge of anti-colonial resistance in the mid-19th century".
The colonies "that suffered most in the sphere of higher education were those that were colonised last, as the 20th century opened" - the colonies of middle Africa, which could boast only a handful of graduates by independence during the 1960s.
Professor Mamdani said that higher education in middle Africa "began in any meaningful sense with independence, not colonialism". Colonial Nigeria, for instance, had one university with 1,000 students in 1961; 30 years later it had 41 universities with 131,000 students.
But a deluge of post-independence problems beset African universities, ranging from lack of historical vision and failure to "decolonise"
curricula, to nationalist governments who attacked universities as hotbeds of criticism, international policies that prioritised primary education and encouraged a brain drain and, more latterly, the privatisation and commercialisation of universities, which increased student and teaching loads and eroded research.
"If the Commonwealth is to have a programme of redress in higher education, a regional university for small countries - particularly middle African countries - would be a worthy focus for it," he concluded.