African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook

African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook [1], edited by Damtew Teferra and Philip G. Altbach, is remarkable for its breadth and ambition, and is useful as a reference tool for education professionals and experts on Africa. Teferra and Altbach have assembled a diverse collection of essays on higher education in Africa from a variety of international contributors, and have arranged these essays into two parts. The first section of the book features essays on general themes pertaining to higher education in Africa. These are similar to those found in scholarly journals of international comparative higher education. The second section is encyclopedic in character, and features comprehensive educational profiles on all the countries of Africa, ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe. The third and final part of African Higher Education is a collection of bibliographic resources arranged by country and by theme. Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education [2] at Boston College, and Teferra is co-director, with Altbach, of the African Higher Education Project at the center.

The common theme running through all the essays is the struggle of African countries to overcome the long-term effects of colonialism. The modern university system in Africa was introduced by the colonial powers in the 19th century and did little to prepare the African countries for independence. For example, “[c]olonial authorities… were interested in training limited numbers of African nationals to assist in administering the colonies” (Teferra and Altbach, “Trends and Perspectives,” 4). “Zaire, for example, reached independence without a single national engineer, lawyer, or doctor. Zambia had only 100 university graduates. The University of East Africa, serving Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, had a total of ninety-nine graduates in 1961” (Teferra, “Scientific Communication and Research in African Universities,” 129). Today’s African institutions of higher education are still afflicted with many of these same shortcomings and are struggling to free themselves from the legacy left by the region’s colonial past.

At the same time, however, African higher education also faces a struggle to gain independence from the very African governments that succeeded the colonial powers. There seems to be a consensus among the authors that socialism has done a disservice to the education systems of Africa. The role of governments in subsidizing tuition and room and board has fueled dependency of the university on the state. One of the consequences of this dependence has been the appointment of university administrators on the basis of political considerations rather than on any objective criteria.

More recently, the introduction of tuition fees and student loans to help pay for education has met with stern resistance on the part of students. In her article “Women in Universities and University-Educated Women,” Eva M. Rathgeber notes a colleague’s finding “that there were no established criteria for the selection of vice-chancellors and that loyalty to the government, closeness to the chancellor (in the case of Kenya, the president, Daniel Arap Moi), and the need to reward colleagues seemed to be important considerations” (89). Kilemi Mwiria’s article “University Governance and University-State Relations” exposes the deep roots of this problem.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state, warned University of Ghana academics that “if reforms do not come from within, we intend to impose them from outside, and no resort to the cry of academic freedom… is going to restrain us from seeing that our university is a healthy University [of Ghana] devoted to Ghanaian interests” (Ashby 1964, 92). In the same spirit, the University of Zimbabwe chancellor, President Robert Mugabe, informed the university community in 1983 that “higher education is too important a business to be left entirely to deans, professors, lecturers, and university administrations” (Mugabe 1983, 2). (33)

Gently chiding student protesters, Teferra and Altbach note that the weaning of state universities from government funding may necessitate a cutback in education subsidies and/or the introduction of student fees, and that those students interested in maintaining the status quo “have not been much concerned about issues of academic quality or the curriculum.”

Irungu Munene, in his article “Student Activism in Higher Education,” notes that the student revolts of the 1960s and 70s seemed to be related to ideological issues pertaining to “the role of the postcolonial state” (120). “It is instructive to note that heads of states such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Modibo Keita of Mali, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa were student leaders and activists in their university days.” This ideological positioning of the 60s and 70s is at odds, Munene writes, with the driving force of protests in the 80s, which was related to “institutional issues,” such as “the practice of bringing off-campus friends to eat free of charge at the cafeterias.” When this practice was threatened by the introduction of required meal card purchases by the University of Zambia, “students… fought pitched battles with the police.”

There is widespread agreement among the authors that Makerere University [3] has been pioneering in establishing institutional independence from government support.

In Uganda… the rising costs of student living allowances (known as boom) and subsidies for food and accommodation meant that these costs absorbed over 80 percent of the annual budget of the University of Makerere by 1988, which seriously undermined quality. However, when the government announced the abolition of living allowances and the introduction of modest charges for food and accommodation, there was fierce opposition, which was eventually overcome by a successful campaign to persuade the public that free higher education and subsidized food and accommodation was neither sustainable nor equitable. (Woodhall, “Financing and Economics of Higher Education in Africa,” 47)

Woodhall quotes a former vice-chancellor of the university who bluntly states that the financing of elite students through government funding amounts, in effect, to a tax on the poor.

However, the favorable results at Makerere have not always been replicable at other institutions. In many cases, loan repayment schemes have fallen through due to high default levels and legal and institutional obstacles to collection: “some bank administrators had the view that ‘It is not our money’” (49).

A related problem is the migration of students, who have been educated in their home countries, to greener pastures abroad, especially in the West. This phenomenon, noted by many of the authors and often referred to as the “brain drain”, was the subject of an article in the New York Times not long ago (“An Exodus of African Nurses [4],” July 12, 2004). The Times pointed out that brain drain is especially debilitating because the students who are leaving the continent have, more often than not, been educated free of charge.

A big impediment to university funding has been the deepening of the AIDS crisis in Africa, which has diverted money from the universities to the health care sector.

These difficulties have forced African students and policy-makers to question whether the practical needs of the country might require greater emphasis than the personal goals of students in the pursuit of education. “Students may train to become doctors, lawyers, or preachers when the nation may need agronomists, economists, and engineers” (75). In a brilliant article, which subtly emphasizes the practical needs of the region over the theoretical problems of de-colonization, William Saint argues that distance learning offers an effective remedy to the lack of access to higher education. Although distance education has at times, in the past, been viewed as inferior to traditional campus-based education, Saint argues that such negative perceptions are diminishing in large part because of the accumulated experience of working with online programs as the technology improves.

The essays in Part II of African Higher Education provide information along these and other themes as they relate to specific countries in addition to outlining the structures of educational systems on a per-country basis. The latter should be of particular use to evaluators of international credentials. The historical material found in this book should be of interest to all who are concerned with this region of the globe.