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Performance – not aspiration – needed to revitalise higher education

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, influential voices started calling for the ‘revitalisation’ of the African university and for linking higher education to development. This resulted in a series of ‘revitalisation’ initiatives in the years that followed and the term persists to this day, as evidenced in the title of the upcoming African Higher Education Summit – “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”.

The Collins dictionary defines ‘revitalise’ as “breathe new life into, bring back to life, reanimate, refresh, rejuvenate, renew, restore, resurrect”. This raises questions as to what has to have new life breathed into it or be restored or resurrected?

In a new book, Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education [1], Nico Cloete and Peter Maassen summarise the four core functions of universities described by Manual Castells as “producing values and social legitimation; selecting the dominant elites; training the labour force; and producing scientific knowledge and supporting its application in society” [2].

Research function neglected

In the African context, during colonial domination that was characterised by an economic model of extraction and exploitation, higher education was not regarded as ‘value-adding’. In the post-colonial era, newly independent African nations regarded universities as important for elite formation and for training the labour force at the professional level.

Development aid, as can be illustrated by the World Bank’s ‘policy advice’ with respect to higher education, did not in any way incorporate producing new knowledge as a function of the African university.

And when international donor agencies did begin to regard universities as important for development, the main focus for development aid was on direct assistance with (community) development.

Higher education in Africa thus developed a path of dependency that privileged the ‘ideological, elite-formation’ and ‘training the labour force’ functions of the typology of university functions, while the ‘production of scientific knowledge with application in society’ function was not developed.

So does revitalisation mean that new life must be breathed into university systems where the ‘generation of new knowledge’ function is the major area of underdevelopment and underperformance?

Reports on revitalisation

Interestingly, most of the reports on revitalisation initiatives were produced in preparation for major donor-driven events. Two of these were the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit and the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.

For Gleneagles, the African Union’s NEPAD agency prepared a report in 2005 called Renewal of Higher Education in Africa [3], and for the UNESCO conference there were the United Nations University project report Revitalizing Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [4] and the Barney Pityana paper, “The Revitalisation of Higher Education: Access, equity and quality” [5] published in 2009.

No systematic assessment of the outcomes of these pleas for revitalisation has been done.

But in an overview of the public donor dimension in Africa, Maassen and Cloete (2010) [6] wrote that while the G8 summit certainly created a momentum for a new focus on Africa, the G8’s renewed commitment to Africa was far from uncontroversial: not only did part of the British government react negatively, but agencies such as the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV-Aids and the International Monetary Fund responded critically to some of the proposals.

Regarding higher education in particular, two of the most important documents to be released relating to the G8 summit were the Africa Action Plan and the Report of the Commission for Africa.

The Africa Action Plan focused broadly on developing research and higher education capacity as well as information and communication technologies.

Calls for support

The Commission for Africa report identified four priorities for the sector: professional skills, physical infrastructure, human resources and research capacity.

It specifically called for a fund of US$500 million to be created for revitalising African institutions of higher education and a fund of US$3 billion for strengthening science, engineering and technological capacity.

Of the call for US$500 million, only the US$10 million allocated by the UK Department for International Development – DFID – to the Association of African Universities during 2006 could be seen as a direct outcome of the G8 meeting.

However, what did change was that DFID, in responding to the Millennium Development Goals and the UK prime minister’s enthusiasm during the G8, finally abandoned its rather slavish support for the outdated World Bank policy to not support higher education – long after the World Bank itself had abandoned this position.

As for the UNESCO World Conference, the most positive outcome was the unanimous expression of support for the importance of higher education by a group of 16 African ministers of education at a prior meeting entitled “New Dynamics on Higher Education and Research: Strategies for change and development”.

It could be argued that ‘new dynamics’ is a considerable improvement on ‘revitalisation’.

Reporting on the meeting, Karen MacGregor (2009) [7] noted that the ministers “called for improved financing of universities and a support fund to strengthen training and research in key areas”.

Perhaps more importantly, MacGregor reported that there had been considerable awareness about the role that should be played by knowledge as the driving force of development with an emphasis on reforming higher education systems.

Ironically, however, soon after committing to an increased emphasis on strengthening higher education at the World Conference, UNESCO itself then devalued the status of higher education by merging the higher education division with the general education division within its own structures.

Since then, not much has emerged from this structure – which was without a director during most of 2014.

Disappointing outcomes

The two revitalisation processes highlighted above worked in very different ways, but sadly with the same disappointing outcomes.

Gleneagles was a meeting comprising the core group of eight presidents and prime ministers of the economically most powerful countries in the world, together with the enlarged (fringe) group of 20 that included South Africa.

The UNESCO World Conference, in contrast, was attended by participants from about 150 countries. Some of the participants were politicians, but on the whole it was much more of an academic affair directed by a strong scientific committee. The conference concluded with a Communiqué [8] that contained 50 recommendations for a global education agenda.

The final 10 resolutions dealt with Africa and focussed on quality, a higher education area, access, curriculum, funding and governance. It concluded with a page long ‘Call for Action’ from member states and UNESCO.

The main Communiqué had six (out of 50) vague statements on ‘learning research and innovation’ – but, notably, not doing research and innovation.

The fact that research was not even mentioned in the Africa resolutions is rather Fanonian, meaning that academics – including African academics – had internalised the dominant development aid ideology that new knowledge production was not a central task for universities in Africa.

Aspiration versus Bologna-style implementation

In addition to disappointing outcomes, the two processes shared the same fatal flaw: neither the G8 nor UNESCO are implementation agencies, they are resolution (aspirational) bodies.

By contrast, the European Union’s Bologna process was very different in design and arguably far more successful.

Informed by higher education expert reports that the segmentation of the European higher education sector was outdated and harmful, and that a bold new approach was necessary to make European higher education more competitive and to foster student mobility and employability, four ministers of higher education – from France, Germany, Italy and the UK – signed the Sorbonne Joint Declaration in May 1998 in Paris.

This two-page declaration encapsulated a single idea – that of an open European area for higher learning – and outlined a few sketchy possible features of such a system.

The decision to engage in a voluntary process to create the European Higher Education Area was formalised one year later in Bologna by the ministers of 30 countries – The Bologna Declaration of 1999.

The key difference to the G8 and UNESCO conferences was that initially 30, and then later 47 ministries with their bureaucracies, and with considerable support from academics – despite the usual proportion of sceptics – started to ‘voluntarily’ implement a process that was connected through the development of national and European qualifications frameworks.

These frameworks aimed to provide a clearly defined system that is easy for students, institutions and employers to comprehend. And, of course, the process was ‘shepherded’ from Brussels.

Bologna, and the establishment of the European Research Council – a unique collaboration between an independent group of world renowned academics and Brussels bureaucrats, with a €630 million (US$714 million) budget in 2015 – are the two most impactful reforms in European higher education during the last two decades.

Africa must focus

The question for the African Higher Education Summit is this: will it conclude with a wish list of 50 items and numerous calls for action?

Or will it focus on one issue, such as the fact that Africa does not have enough research-intensive universities that can produce new knowledge that is simultaneously part of the global knowledge economy and contributes to development in Africa?

A second, related, question is: who will drive this initiative? This will require the summit to pay attention to how a focus issue could be implemented, and what the implementation roles of universities – leadership and academics – governments and international donor agencies could be.

Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


  • 1- Cloete N and Maassen P (2015) “Roles of universities and the African Context”. In: N Cloete, P Maassen and T Bailey (eds), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.
  • 2- Castells M (1993) “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”. In: A Ransom, S-M Khoo and V Selvaratnam (eds), Improving Higher Education in Developing Countries. Washington DC: The World Bank, pp 65-80.
  • 3- African Union-NEPAD (2005) Renewal of Higher Education in Africa. Report of AU-NEPAD Workshop, 27-28 October 2005, Johannesburg.
  • 4- United Nations University (2009) Revitalizing Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. A United Nations University project report: http://archive.unu.edu/africa/files/U...cation.pdf
  • 5- Pityana B (2009) “The Revitalisation of Higher Education: Access, equity and quality”: http://www.unisa.ac.za/contents/about...0Jun09.pdf
  • 6- Maassen P and Cloete N (2010) “Higher Education, Donor Organisations, Nation States and Development: The public donor dimension in Africa”. In: RM Bassett and A Maldonado-Maldonado (eds), International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking globally, acting locally. New York: Routledge, pp 251-279.
  • 7- MacGregor K (2009) “Africa: Call for higher education support fund”. University World News. Issue No 25, 22 March 2009.
  • 8- UNESCO (2009) World Conference on Higher Education Communiqué : http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTI...202009.pdf Paris: UNESCO, 8 July 2009.

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