AFRICA: Rapid growth in private religious universities

Critics of private post-secondary education often argue that foreign universities in developing nations are commercial and profit-hungry. But these debates ring hollow in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of private providers are religiously-oriented with non-profit business models. Religious institutions are the fastest growing type of post-secondary institution in almost every nation north of South Africa and south of the Sahara.

These institutions range from research universities with multiple subjects to praxis-oriented training schools for religious leaders. While considered private because they are independent of state control and funding, the rationales of these institutions to provide post-secondary education are faith-based, rather than profit-driven.

The influence of Christianity and Islam on primary and secondary schooling has been strong in Africa since the colonial era, but the past decades have seen major aid organisations prioritise post-secondary education as a means of innovation, training and job-creation.

The region may still have the lowest per capita enrolment in post-secondary education, but enrolment growth is skyrocketing, having increased fourfold between 1985 and 2005. Religious institutions are key players in this growth.

Large state universities exist in most African nations and they have mainly followed the path of secularisation charted by their founding European colonial institutions. In contrast, several institutions established in the past two decades have been funded and managed by large international denominations such as the Ahlul Bayt Foundation or the United Methodist Church.

In the case of Ghana and Uganda, the government appealed to these organisations to establish universities to meet growing student demand. This was particularly important in the case of Ghana where the large Muslim population in the north often has little access to post-secondary education and the involvement of Ahlul Bayt was an attempt to increase access for marginalised students.

Both Christian and Muslim universities offer a range of subjects such as law, economics and education - but offer them through a faith-specific lens. Some have argued that these institutions engage in alternative knowledge production that challenges the West, but little evidence exists to support this as the scope of African academics is still relatively small on a global scale.

Centres for religious leaders

Growing alongside the state and religious research universities are the practical training centres for religious leaders. These seminaries or madrassas are appearing across the region linked to Western or Middle Eastern religious organisations, offering degrees such as Christian education or ministry studies.

Though often smaller in size than universities, the volume and scope of these organisations leads to broad appeal. Programmes are offered in flexible distance format geared for practitioners, and funding partnerships are arranged with overseas denominations or local churches to provide students with scholarships.

These organisations are too often ignored when calculations of Africa's post-secondary education are made. Their mandates are seen to be narrow and their populations employed in one, peripheral sector. But while religious education has become somewhat peripheral in the West, many African communities put a strong value in religious education and the authority of faith leaders.

Praxis-oriented religious education may be the only accessible post-secondary education for a significant number of students and these institutions need to be considered in discussions of African education.

Ideological battleground?

Although the growth of both religious universities and ministry training centres may be helping to meet the exploding demand for post-secondary education in Africa, fears have been raised about the impact of external religious organisations that may use Africa as an ideological battleground through the funding of sectarian religious institutions.

However, these fears should not be overstated and appear to have little substance.

For the main, in the religious universities of Uganda and Somalia, external funding has remained stagnant for a decade, suggesting limited involvement by the foreign denomination and forcing the university to make other partnerships to secure funding.

Furthermore, students outside the specific religion are readily admitted to the institutions, and both Muslim and Christian students make up a minority at the universities that are not run by their specific faith.

Quality concerns

While ideological wars do not appear imminent, private religious institutions raise concerns in areas of quality assurance and accreditation. Through a web analysis of 80 institutions in seven nations, it became clear that few concerted efforts exist across the region to ensure the authenticity and transferability of degrees granted by them.

The African harmonisation movement is working with state institutions to ensure credit transferability, but the conversation needs to broaden to evaluate and monitor the rapidly emerging religious institutions.

One of the biggest challenges to quality assurance is the informal legitimacy of religious institutions. Private universities that were initiated by international organisations based in the West or Middle East have a tacit authority that is often accepted by students based on the overseas connection, with no guarantee of the course quality or transferability of the degree.

The website of one American-based denomination offering training programmes in West Africa appeals to an American accreditation board that is not widely recognised, even in the US. These appeals to authority that may not have a wide reach put students in a disadvantaged position should they pursue education elsewhere or present their degree for employment.

Religious institutions must be brought into the pan-African conversations about harmonisation and quality assurance to share best practices, improve recognition and raise standards for growing numbers of students.

Past and future

The readiness of governments and policy researchers to discount religious education is likely linked to historical evidence of institutional secularisation in Europe and North America.

Religion has faded from importance at many Western universities, or has been relegated to a subject of study. In many cases these Western institutions parented state-run universities in Africa during the colonial era, which travelled the road of secularisation as well.

Now, 50 years later, the unprecedented growth of religious post-secondary education is causing some to call for secularisation and others to stand up and take notice. But secularisation is an unlikely outcome for the new private religious institutions.

In contrast to the transitions of the independence era, struggling African states have few resources to take over religious institutions, broadening and secularising their mandates.

Furthermore, the growing religious institutions are no longer connected to state-run institutions that are experiencing Western secularisation, while retaining their academic mandate. Rather, they are connected to international denominational organisations that have, as main priority, the education and maintenance of religious ideologies.

Political philosophies and religious research of the past few decades lends support to the idea that African universities will not quickly travel the road of secularisation. The controversial work of Samuel P Huntington and the debates surrounding his Clash of Civilizations thesis show the importance religion is still playing in many international events.

The World Values Survey by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2004) has helped to reframe secularisation debates. They outline how secularisation is most often linked to high levels of existential security and occurs when nations and regions have large numbers of people whose daily needs are being met.

This picture of existential security is certainly not the first image one has of Sub-Saharan Africa. While many advances have been made in health, education and economic growth, vast numbers across the continent have high mortality rates and poor access to basic services.

If existential security is the indicator of how soon secularisation will occur, then private religious post-secondary education will continue to play a large role in Africa for the foreseeable future.

It is in light of this that governments, foreign aid providers and education researchers need to take seriously the influence and potentials of religious post-secondary providers in Africa. They are increasing access for students, offering multiple levels of training and need to be included in conversations about quality control and harmonisation.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is with the Comparative, International and Development Centre, OISE, at the University of Toronto, Canada.Email:

* This article draws on her recent study of international religious institutions and their influence on African post-secondary education. For more information see: Karram, G (2011) "The International Connections of Religious Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Rationales and implications". Journal of Studies in International Education. (15) 5, 480-491. doi: 10.1177/1028315311400085.