Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

There are two widespread assumptions about university education in Africa: first that the Europeans introduced it, and second that it has declined since independence. Both are false, writes Paul Zeleza. Higher education including universities long antedated the establishment of “western” style universities in the nineteenth century and the post-independence era was a period of unprecedented growth during which the bulk of contemporary Africa’s universities were established.

Discourses about Africa continue to be infected by what we used to call in the 1980s and 1990s Afropessimism, the belief that Africa is irredeemably doomed to backwardness and chaos. Afropessimism embodies two tendencies—vilification of African experiences and valorization of Euroamerican engagements with Africa, that Africa is incapable by itself of historical progress and that any progress evident there is the result of Euroamerican interventions. Discourses of African higher education have not escaped this narrative. There are two widespread assumptions about university education in Africa: first that the Europeans introduced it, and second that it has declined since independence. Both are false. Higher education including universities long antedated the establishment of “western” style universities in the nineteenth century and the post-independence era was a period of unprecedented growth during which the bulk of contemporary Africa’s universities were established.

As a historian profoundly committed to Africa’s development and social transformation, I believe history—a long historical perspective—is a powerful antidote to the fatalism often induced by the overwhelming flow of current events that Afropessimism turns into eternal trends. In this case, as an intellectual historian interested both in the history of ideas and of knowledge producing institutions, and one who is engaged in African and global debates about the future of higher education, the need for a proper understanding of Africa’s long and complicated history of tertiary education is imperative. I offer here brief reflections on the history and contemporary challenges of African universities.

The origins of higher education in Africa including universities as communities of scholars and learning can be traced to three institutional traditions: first, the Alexandria Museum and Library, second, the early Christian monasteries, and third, the Islamic mosque universities. The Alexandria Museum and Library was established in the third century B.C. in Egypt. It grew to become the largest center of learning in the ancient world. The complex is estimated to have housed more than 200,000 volumes, and supported up to 5,000 scholars and students. Clearly, this was a large research institution, and many of the leading Egyptian and other African as well as Greek, Roman, and Jewish scholars of the ancient world studied or worked there at some point in their lives. The library gradually declined as buildings were destroyed by fire, its holdings looted in times of warfare, and scholars left due to political instability in the twilight years of the Roman empire. Alexandria left a rich legacy of scholarship covering a wide range of fields from mathematics and the sciences to philosophy and religion.

It was also in Egypt, one of the earliest centers of Christianity in the world, that monasteries first developed in the third century A.D. Tens of thousands of Christians gathered in the monasteries in the desert not only to escape the exactions of Roman rule, but also for a life devoted to spiritual contemplation. The monasteries and the monastic orders that regulated them provided important spaces for reflection, writing, and learning. The idea and institution of monasteries spread to other parts of Africa, and elsewhere in the world as far as Britain and Georgia in Europe and Persia and India in Asia, out of which some universities later developed.

One country where monastic education developed early was Ethiopia where Christianity was introduced in the fourth century A.D. and became the state religion. From the period of the Zagwe dynasty in the twelfth century this system included higher education, which was largely restricted to the clergy and nobility. At the bottom of the system was the Qine Bet (School of Hymns), followed by the Zema Bet (School of Poetry, and at the pinnacle was an institution called Metsahift Bet (School of the Holy Books) that provided a broader and more specialized education in religious studies, philosophy, history, and the computation of time and calendar, among various subjects.

It is the third tradition, Islam, which gave Africa its first higher education institutions that have endured to the present. Indeed, Africa claims distinction as the center of the world’s oldest Islamic universities and some of the world’s oldest surviving universities. They include Ez-Zitouna madrassa in Tunis founded in 732. Next came al-Qarawiyyin mosque university established in Fez in 859 by a young migrant female princess from Qairawan (Tunisia), Fatima Al-Fihri. The university attracted students and scholars from Andalusian Spain to West Africa. Then in 969 Al-Azhar mosque university was established in Cairo, the same year that the city was founded by the Fatimid dynasty from the Maghreb. It came to be regarded as the most prestigious center of Islamic education and scholarship and attracted the greatest intellectuals of the Muslim world, including Ibn Khaldun the renowned historian who taught there. Another major early Islamic university was Sankore mosque university in Timbuktu founded in the twelfth century where a wide range of courses were taught from theology, logic, astronomy and astrology, to grammar, rhetoric, history and geography.

The legacy of the ancient Islamic university for modern Africa is three-fold. First, many of the Islamic universities have survived to the present, although they have undergone major changes over the centuries, including the introduction of more secular, technical and professional fields of study. This is true of three of the four universities mentioned above—Sankore being the sole exception. Second, in recent times new Islamic universities have been created in several countries across the continent often patterned on the old Islamic universities as part of the wave of privatization of higher education as state control has loosened. Third, the “western” university introduced in Africa from the nineteenth century bore Islamic influences. Europeans inherited from the Muslims a huge corpus of knowledge, rationalism and the investigative approach to knowledge, an elaborate disciplinary architecture of knowledge, the notions of individual scholarship, and the idea of the college, all of which became central features of the European university exported to the rest of the world with the rise of European imperialism.

Missionaries—both European and African including those from the diaspora—initially undertook the introduction of Africa’s “western” style universities. The process was largely concentrated in the expanding European settler colonies of South Africa and Algeria, and in Sierra Leone and Liberia newly established colonies for African diaspora resettlement. The first was Fourah Bay College founded in Sierra Leone in 1826 and more than three decades later, in 1862, came Liberia College. The two institutions became the beacons of West Africa’s bourgeoning colonial intelligentsia and nationalism. Edward Blyden, the renowned Pan-Africanist scholar-activist was actively engaged with both colleges. In addition, there were a series of smaller colleges in Liberia.

In the meantime, in South Africa segregated institutions were set up beginning in 1829 with the South African College in Cape Town (later the University of Cape Town), which mostly catered to the English settlers. In 1866 a college for the Afrikaner settlers was created called the Stellenbosch Gymnasium, which finally became Stellenbosch University in 1918. A small college for Africans, the Lovedale Institution, was created in 1841, which was increasingly modeled on African American industrial and vocational colleges in the United States. Then in 1873 the University of the Cape of Good Hope (renamed the University of South Africa in 1916) was established initially as an examining body before it became one of Africa’s and the world’s leading distance education providers.

As in South Africa, in French Algeria higher education was largely confined to the settler population. It began with the establishment of the School of Medicine in 1857, followed in 1879 by the creation of four specialized schools of medicine, pharmacy, sciences, letters, and law, which merged to form faculties of the University of Algiers in 1909. Another French colony where higher education started in the late nineteenth century was Madagascar where the Antananarivo Medical Training Academy was established in 1896.

It was not until the twentieth century following the European conquest that colonial universities spread to the rest of the continent. Two countries escaped colonization, Liberia and Ethiopia, but both sought to modernize their educational systems. In Liberia, where American models were popular, Cuttington University College was created in 1949 with support from the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Liberia College destroyed by fire in the late 1940s was reconstituted into the University of Liberia in 1951. The brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia 1935-41 shocked Ethiopia into embarking on a drive for educational modernization. In 1949, the government created Trinity College, which was granted a charter in 1950 under the name of University College of Addis Ababa, and renamed Haile Selassie University in 1961.

In colonial Africa, the development of higher education remained limited until after the Second World War because the colonial authorities were generally suspicious of and opposed to the modern educated African elite and their nationalist demands for equality and freedom, and colonial civil servants feared African competition. Africans seeking higher education were often forced to go abroad including the imperial metropoles themselves. During this period higher education was limited to the British and French empires, virtually none was provided in Belgian and Portuguese Africa.

The first colonial university college in Northern Africa was the Gordon Memorial College founded in the Sudan in 1902, renamed Khartoum University College in 1951 and Khartoum University at independence in 1956. A decade later, in 1912, the Islamic Institute was founded; it became a college in 1924 and was renamed the Omdurman Islamic University in 1965. In Egypt, Cairo University was founded in 1908 despite the vehement opposition of the colonial governor. It grew to become one of the largest universities in Africa, with a student population presently of 155,000 students and more than 5,500 faculty members and instructors. In 1938 the university formed a branch in Alexandria, which later became Alexandria University in 1942. In South Africa, a new era in higher education began with the establishment of the Inter-State Native College in 1916, later renamed the University College of Fort Hare in 1951. Fort Hare became a magnate for not only black South African students but also for African students from across Southern Africa as attested by its list of alumni who include such nationalist leaders as Nelson Mandela, Seretse Khama, and Robert Mugabe.

Elsewhere, before the war a few institutions were created that functioned largely as secondary schools or technical schools before they were converted after the war into university colleges. Examples from the British colonies include Makerere Government College established in Uganda in 1921 first as a vocational school before it was turned into Makerere University College in 1949. In Nigeria Yaba Higher College was set up in 1932, which served for years as the country’s major higher education institution. In Ghana there was the Government Training College, which was formally opened in January 1927 and renamed the Prince of Wales School and College, Achimota. Among its most famous instructors was Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, the eminent educator, and its alumni include Kwame Nkrumah who obtained his teacher’s certificate from the college in 1930. These colleges were often affiliated with and provided courses, examinations, and qualifications from British universities.

In the French colonies, higher education was hampered by the preference among both the colonial authorities and the African elites, spawned by the policies and ideology of assimilation, for higher education in the metropole. Moreover, missionary provision of education was rather limited, which undermined the development of primary and secondary education that could feed into higher education. The institutions of higher education established before the war included the French Western Africa Medical Training Institution founded in 1918 in Dakar, the William Ponty School established in Goree in 1903 that provided some medical training and teacher training, schools of marine engineering and veterinary medicine in Goree and Bamako, respectively, and a polytechnic also in Bamako.

It was not until the end of the Second World War that more systematic efforts were undertaken by colonial governments to establish higher education. In the British colonies, the new era started with the establishment of university colleges in Nigeria (Ibadan in 1947), Ghana (Legon in 1948), Sudan (Khartoum in 1949 from the merger of the Gordon Memorial College and the Kitchener Medical School), and Uganda (Makerere was upgraded in 1949). In addition, in Kenya the Royal Technical College was established in Nairobi in 1951, and further south the University College of Salisbury was formed in 1953 and renamed two years later as the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Meanwhile, Fourah Bay College became the University College of Sierra Leone. Most of these new or upgraded university colleges served as regional universities and were affiliated with and awarded degrees of the University of London.

After the war French universities also set up a few overseas campuses in the colonies. The University of Paris established Institutes of Higher Studies in Tunis in 1945, and together with the University of Bordeaux, in Dakar in 1950 and Antananarivo in 1955 that became the University of Dakar in 1957 and the University of Antananarivo in 1960, respectively. In Algeria access to the University of Algiers for Algerians was expanded slightly, although by the time of the Algerian revolution in 1952 there were only 1,000 Algerian university graduates. In the rest of the French colonial empire university education had to await independence.

The Belgians in the Congo followed the French practice as the Catholic University of Louvain established the Lovanium (little Louvain) University Centre in 1949, with which it became affiliated in 1954, while the state created the Official University in 1956 in Lubumbashi. Lovanium also catered for students from Rwanda and Burundi. In the Portuguese colonies higher education lagged behind until the turn of the 1960s. In Angola, institutions to train priests were formed in 1958 in Luanda and Huambo, followed by the establishment in 1962 of two General University Studies in Angola and Mozambique as branches of the Portuguese university system that were converted in 1968 into the Universities of Angola and Lourenço Marques, respectively.

In the meantime, in South Africa where apartheid had been established in 1948 higher education became even more racially segregated than before. Blacks were no longer allowed to attend the “white” universities without special government approval and separate universities were created for Africans in the so-called self-governing homelands and for Coloreds and Indians in the major cities. By 1994, the year that ushered in the country’s first democratically elected government, there were 36 higher education institutions consisting of 21 universities and 15 technikons, of which 19 were for whites, 2 for coloreds, 2 for Indians and 13 for Africans. Needless to say, higher education was far better resourced for whites than for the other races with the Africans at the bottom. In Namibia, under South African occupation from the end of the First World War until independence in 1990, college education started as late as 1980 with the establishment of the Academy for Tertiary Education, followed in 1985 by the formation of the Technikon of Namibia, and the College for Out-of-School Training.

Decolonization was a staggered process as African countries got independent at different times, but the bulk of them did so in the 1950s and 1960s. Colonial rule left behind very few universities, the majority of countries did not even have a single university, so that one of the key challenges for the new independent states was to establish or expand their higher education systems. Also, since the few existing universities were patterned on European models and were rather elitist there was the need to make them more relevant to Africa’s developmental needs and socio-cultural contexts and more accessible to students of different social backgrounds.

Across Africa the growth in higher education after independence was nothing short of phenomenal. The new states embarked on ambitious development programs in which universities were seen as central for training a highly skilled labor force, creating and reproducing a national elite, and enhancing national prestige. The new national universities were quite diverse and flexible in their structures and models. On the whole, they were much larger in size than their colonial predecessors, broader in their missions, and they expanded their disciplinary and curricula offerings from the arts and social sciences to include professional fields of study such as business, medicine and engineering, and they incorporated graduate programs.

In 1960, often taken as the year of African independence, there were an estimated 120,000 students in African universities; the number jumped to 782,503 in 1975 and to 3,461,822 in 1995, and presently it is probably around 5 million. Similarly, the number of universities grew from less than three-dozen in 1960 to more than four hundred in 1995 and several hundred more have perhaps been introduced since then with the explosion of private universities. Today, tertiary education exists in all African countries, although the systems vary enormously in terms of size and levels of development and internal differentiation. For example, in 1995 the largest concentration of university students was in Egypt (850,051), followed by South Africa (617,897), Nigeria (404,969), Algeria (347,410), and Morocco (294,502) (World Bank 2000: 111). In contrast, in the same year there were 23 countries with fewer than 10,000 university students.

There were also sharp gender differences in terms of access to higher education. While several countries had managed to attain gender parity at the primary and secondary levels by 2000, very few had managed to do so at the tertiary level. The exceptions were Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, and South Africa. The gender gap also manifested itself in fields of study and faculty distribution. Women were concentrated in the humanities and social sciences, while they were grossly underrepresented in the sciences and most of the professional fields. As multi-ethnic, sometimes multi-racial, and invariably class societies, access to university education in African countries was further differentiated according to ethnicity, race, and class, as well as, in some cases, religious and cultural affiliations. Class became increasingly salient as the African middle classes grew rapidly after independence, in many cases thanks to the establishment or expansion of university education itself, and sought to reproduce themselves.

The massive expansion of education across the continent not only led to huge improvements in the African human capital stock, it also laid the institutional basis for the social production of African intellectual capacities and communities. But Africa remained the least educated continent in the world, with a tertiary gross enrollment ratio of less than 5 percent, as compared to 10 percent for the low- and middle-income countries and 58 percent for the high-income countries. The challenges facing African higher education deepened with the imposition in the 1980s and 1990s of draconian structural adjustment programs (SAPs) by the international financial institutions including the World Bank that led to severe government cutbacks in social expenditures, including education, especially for higher education whose rates of social return were deemed by the supporters of neo-liberalism to be lower than for primary education.

Thus from the 1980s even as the number of colleges and universities continued to expand, it became increasingly evident that the higher education system in many countries was in crisis, which was expressed in declining state funding, falling instructional standards, poorly equipped libraries and laboratories, shrinking wages and faculty morale. Academics increasingly resorted to consultancies or they became part of the “brain drain” as they sought refuge in other sectors at home or universities abroad. The costs on teaching, research, and Africa’s capacity to produce highly skilled human capital were predictably high.

There were other responses to the crisis besides increasing academic labor migration. One was the proliferation of regional research networks, the growth of an academic NGO sector. Examples include the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), and the Nairobi based International Institute of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). These organizations and networks provided crucial support for basic and applied research, both individual and collaborative, and offered training, internships, and fellowships to graduate students.

Another response was seen in the explosion in private universities and the privatization of programs and funding sources in public universities, both of which were manifestations of the growing liberalization of African higher education. The private universities can be distinguished in terms of their institutional types (their status—not-for-profit and for-profit; identity—religious and secular; and focus—business, Christian or Islamic), programs and levels, staffing and funding, and governance structures and regulation. While these universities faced numerous challenges, by the beginning of the 2000s they had begun to outstrip the number of public universities in some countries, a development that profoundly and permanently altered the terrain of higher education.

From the late 1990s African leaders, educators, researchers, and external donors became increasingly aware of the challenges facing African higher education and the need for renewal if the continent was to achieve higher rates of growth and development and compete in an increasingly knowledge intensive global economy. The reform agenda has centered on five broad sets of issues, even if expressions of concern have yet to be matched by the provision of adequate resources. First, the need to examine systematically the philosophical foundations of African universities is widely recognized. Included in this context are issues pertaining to the principles underpinning public higher education in an era of privatization, the conception, content and consequences of the reforms currently being undertaken across the continent, and the public-private interface in African higher education systems.

The second set of issues center on management, how African universities are grappling with the challenges of quality control, funding, governance, and management in response to the establishment of new regulatory regimes, growing pressures for finding alternative sources of funding, changing demographics and massification, increasing demands for access and equity for underrepresented groups including women, and the emergence of new forms of student and faculty politics in the face of democratization in the wider society. Third, there are pedagogical and paradigmatic issues, ranging from the languages of tuition in African universities and educational systems as a whole to the dynamics of knowledge production—the societal relevance of the knowledges produced in African higher education systems and how those knowledges are disseminated and consumed by students, scholarly communities, and the wider public.

Fourth, the role of universities in the pursuit of the historic project of Africa nationalism: decolonization, development, democratization, nation-building and regional integration is under scrutiny. Included in this regard are questions of the uneven and changing relations between universities and the state, civil society, and industry, as well as the role of universities in helping to manage and resolve the various crises that confront the African continent from civil conflicts to disease epidemics including HIV/AIDS. Also, the part universities have played and can play in future to promote or undermine the Pan-African project is a of great interest as African states, through the African Union, renew their efforts to achieve closer integration within Africa and between Africa and its diasporas.

Finally, there is the question of globalization, the impact of trends associated with the new information and communication technologies, the expansion of transborder or transnational provision of higher education, and trade in educational services under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) regime. Critical in this context for Africa is the changing role of external donors from the philanthropic foundations to the World Bank and other international financial institutions and multilateral agencies. The impact of these trends on African higher education and vice-versa are of utmost importance and provide one area of fruitful collaboration between researchers from Africa and other world regions.

The challenges facing African universities are serious and disquieting, but higher education in Africa has a long history and it will have a long future. And the onus for ensuring that such a future is a healthy and productive one lies primarily with African leaders, educators, and scholars, who cannot afford the morbid indulgences of Afropessimism.

* This article was first published on the website of the author, who has kindly given permission for its reproduction by Pambazuka News.

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at