How Relevant is Education In Africa?

Published on 2nd January 2007

Higher education institutions in Africa can be traced back to two or three centuries B.C. as manifested by Alexandria library and Museum. It was argued that for well over a millennium, the scholarly achievements of ancient Alexandria served as guiding lights for the great humanists of European Renaissance. During the early years of Christianity, the philosophical and theological speculations of Alexandria’s clergy and the Ethiopian educational establishments constituted continuation to the earlier institutions.


Perhaps most remarkable to the creation of the modern University, were the contributions of the Africa Islamic Universities, notably the University of Karawiyyin (founded 859 A.D.) and AL Azhar (found 969 A.D.). These together with their academic achievements, had drawn an international community of students and staff. The academic standard of these institutions can be evaluated if scholars like the great historian and sociologist of all times, Ibn Khaldoun, was among the staff of AL Azhar during the period (1382-1421 A.D.). The University of Timbuktu presented a different flavour since it was not centralized, but had a number of independent schools. These institutions were indigenous, relevant and responsive to their community's problems.


The Colonial Era


The European explorations of Africa and slave trade (1600-1850 A.D.) disrupted Africa’s intellectual life, arts, crafts, manufacturing, agricultural production, peaceful trade and all notions of communal solidarity. The abolition of slave trade called for rehabilitation of people and reconstruction of the continent hence increased demand for Western education.


Western type schools were introduced by missionaries who found it an efficient way for evangelization. The colonial powers were reluctant to establish higher education institutions since they were keen to limit financial commitments. Education and enlightenment were not in their interests.


Due to the high cost of expatriate staff, they were forced to establish institutions to raise junior and loyal staff needed to run the colonies. This was the start of modern higher education institutions in Africa. Fourah Bay College was established in Freetown in (1876), Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum in (1898), Makerere Government College in Kampala in (1921) and Yaba Higher College  in Lagos in (1909). These colleges were run by expatriate academic and administrative staff and were linked to Metropolitan Universities of the colonial powers.


Unlike the British, the French philosophy of education was aimed at spreading the French secular culture but not evangelization. This undermined the spread of missionary schools and left the masses uneducated except for elites who were encouraged to seek their education in France and were made to feel at home in Paris than in Africa. Until the second world war, only one Teacher Training College for the whole of the French West Africa was set at Gore’ in Senegal. Later a school of Veterinary medicine and a polytechnic were established in Mali. By the end of the Colonial Era, Sub-Saharan Africa had no more than twenty three Universities. The institutions were alien and irrelevant to the African environment and culture.


Independence Era


As the countries attained political independence, the inadequacy of the colonial university colleges was evident. It became a symbol of the acquired sovereignty to have autonomous and degree-granting institutions, thus ending affiliation to the universities in London and Paris. This did not go far enough to consider the education philosophy and curricula due to external and internal factors. Externally, the Colonial powers controlled the process of decolonization which resulted in tentative constitutions that were mandatory for a stipulated period of time and were designed to extend the colonial legacy.  Internally, African governments accepted education policies without questioning their relevance in the new era. The universities continued to adopt curricula suitable to graduate employees and never endeavored to train owners of production and entrepreneurs.


Nevertheless, the decade of independence made significant impacts on the development of higher education in Africa, such as an increase in the number of universities, students, and programs. By 1980, the number of universities in Sub-Saharan Africa had increased to 100 and only seven countries did not set up universities.


Post independence (1980-2000)


Expansion of universities continued due to population growth, improvement in secondary education and political ambition. This occurred despite the economic hardships that faced most of the countries: rocketing oil prices, service of external debts, decline in prices of exported raw materials and internal conflicts among others. All these made public resources available to universities to dwindle. African governments depended heavily on aid agencies, with African education being intimately linked with the international donor community. The World Bank adopted policies on structural adjustments that favored investment in general education rather than in higher education, arguing that the return on investment was too low, unjustifiable and that it was cheaper, more cost effective and beneficial to train African students in universities abroad than in Africa.


From 1985-1989, 17 per cent of the World Bank’s worldwide education sector financing focused on higher education. For the same period from 1995-1999, the proportion allotted to higher education declined to 7 per cent. The bank’s lack of emphasis on tertiary education resulted in the absence of higher education from the Poverty Reduction Strategies in African countries. This policy had given a severe blow to higher education in Africa. Not only by upholding aid from donor agencies but encouraging African governments to neglect and marginalize higher education.


(to be continued)

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