Model for the transformation of higher education in Africa

Around the world, nations are seeking to build their national economic capacity through the development and application of knowledge. They believe that knowledge empowers young people to engage in economic development where processes are created, services rendered, products manufactured, and where analysis informs major activity in the public and private sector, and increasingly in civil society.

Universities are key agents in this development, which has become more intense in the last two decades.

The pursuit of knowledge has never been more important or more richly supported. While Africa is emerging politically and economically, the continent is not represented in the global initiatives to boost the quality and impact of its tertiary sector.

While many African institutions have made recent strides and are well regarded, only four African universities outside of South Africa are among the world’s top 500 universities.

The need for transformation

This article addresses the urgent need for transformation of higher education in Africa.

The full paper from which it flows describes the current situation on the continent, examines obstacles to transformation, and sets forth a plan and a model for igniting the necessary transformation, with a concert of initiatives that will, in a decade, put the continent on a path toward harnessing its talent, leveraging its resources, and becoming a player in the global marketplace of ideas and innovation.

Although these recommendations do not solve the whole problem, they do provide a model and a collaborative process for achievable and scalable excellence within a generation.

This is ambitious – but it has to be ambitious, because nothing short of a bold stroke will foster effective action or engage the energies of stakeholders.

The process proposed in the paper aims at both substantive and progressive engagement and the creation of opportunities to leverage the energies of stakeholders who become more confident about change as the process evolves.

Economic development cannot be broad and deep without a huge boost in African talent to drive development that relies less on extraction and export of commodities and more on economic activities on the continent – from business services to agriculture.

This must include a massive increase in the number and quality of teachers – who are trained in universities – to provide the high quality primary and secondary education that prepares students for tertiary education.

Progress must be made all fronts simultaneously – boosting the capacity of existing teachers while training new cohorts of teachers who can prepare students for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields that will serve as the foundation for strong national programmes in science, engineering, management and medicine.

The power of higher education

Higher education’s power to accelerate national and economic development, innovation and cultural enhancement is widely acknowledged around the world.

Education is a powerful tool in very concrete ways that are easy to overlook in the West, where colleges and universities have been well integrated into the concept of progress and growth for nearly two centuries. The roles that are uniquely played by higher education institutions include:
  • • Education of professionals and managers.
  • • Research and development, including basic science, to inform technology, policy and professional practice.
  • • Framing of local and national issues by contextualising data, culture and research findings.
  • • Research to set standards in various professional areas.
  • • Education and training of school teachers.
  • • Field extension work to carry research findings to farmers, judges, physicians and other professionals.
  • • Transitioning of first-generation-to-college youth into the middle-class and professions.
  • • Continuing education and retraining of professionals and others.
  • • Global connections in academia, business and civil society.
  • • Support of, and attraction of support for, civil society.
  • • Incubation of research findings and transfer to commerce and industry.
  • • Preservation, creation and interpretation of culture – for example art and design, literature, journalism, music, political economy, history and philosophy.
Every nation needs these functions to be performed. Institutions of higher education in the global North do not contemplate a society in which universities and colleges do not play the roles listed above, even as they debate content, point of view, costs, access and pedagogy.

These roles are under-developed in Africa. Even where there are strong institutions, they are not strong enough to contribute significantly in all the ways outlined above. The missing roles are absent from African society or they are played by external actors or in very limited ways by under-resourced internal actors.

Getting Africa’s tertiary sector to perform these roles is the urgent agenda addressed by this paper.

The opportunity for transformation

Transformation of African higher education will hinge on the actions of its stakeholders – African governments, non-African governments, foundations, African educators, international development agencies and donors, higher education institutions inside and outside Africa, corporations active on the continent, and civil society in Africa and beyond.

All of these stakeholders want to improve African higher education, all understand various aspects of the problem, and all have undertaken efforts to bring change. But their attempts have had very limited effect because they have been short-term and uncoordinated with the actions of others.

What has been missing – and what this paper proposes – is a framework, a vision and a set of steps to be taken by the stakeholders, working together, that can reliably kick-start a model for excellence.

Africans themselves will have to embrace the change process and be leading partners in developing the vision and the plan. The whole process must be conducted carefully and in a stepwise manner so that no stakeholder feels exposed and so that newly established trust and confidence can be sustained.

The model system of pilot institutions proposed, implementable within a decade, would serve as a standard for a new relationship among stakeholders, one in which stakeholders act together to bring change.

The success of the model effort will provide a standard for transforming Africa’s existing higher education institutions.

What success might look like

For the model proposed here, the reader should envision a dozen or so new institutions of various types, configured in clusters in East, West and Central Africa.

These institutions will have a regional character, be led by Africans in strong collaboration with major stakeholders, and be uncompromisingly excellent, independent and globally partnered.

As a condition of accepting the universities, which would receive significant external funds, governments would promise that students from their country would receive the resources that would otherwise be available for the best opportunities in their countries.

The new institutions would collaborate as appropriate with existing institutions and with research institutes. They would involve faculty in research, articulate offerings to advance students’ ability to use new resources, explore online resources, and advocate for support from government and industry.

The new institutions would be on a path to self-government as private institutions, and no consideration would be given to ethnicity or religion in hiring, admissions or curriculum. These tertiary institutions would be of several types:
  • • Traditional colleges of arts and sciences, some with engineering programmes.
  • • A medical school and an affiliated internationally accredited hospital, with a temporarily imported academic staff in medicine, public health, nursing and other health professions.
  • • An agricultural university to train farmers in the science of developing and managing sustainably scaled farms.
  • • Technical universities that collaborate with local and global corporations to train for areas of critical regional need.
Enrolments would be sized to foster excellence, and would be managed to grow towards sustainability.

The model system would also explore the benefits of online education programmes for out-of-school young adults, regular college students and professional students. Overall administration, resource development and infrastructure for online education would be handled through a central office for all of the model institutions.


To realise the model will require hiring a minimum of 2,500 new full-time equivalent faculty over a decade. The paper identifies sources for these faculty, as well as methods for boosting the number of Africans who are prepared to meet this ambitious staffing requirement.

The paper also outlines successful precedents for implementing each institution type and for addressing the institutional development challenges inherent in this task.

It addresses other elements of implementation as well: mission and vision, leadership and operations, governance and oversight, faculty and human resource development, online education, student life and student development, facilities and siting, fundraising and finance, and institutional and corporate engagement.

Successful implementation of the model is possible if a solid collaboration can be forged among stakeholders so that previous caution turns to openness, awkward engagement turns to an exploration of mutual interests and paths to achieve them, and disjointed small steps become locked-arm advances.

Implementation of the model will not be possible without the involvement of African presidents as first partners.

Ideally, one African president in each region would step forward to act as an ‘uber-partner’, and then take certain steps, with regional partners, that demonstrate that the vision for change will be met with ample strategy, engagement and support in Africa.

No model can be advanced without this African leadership. While the model would ideally envision more than a dozen institutions, a phased start with fewer institutions would also work.

To initiate this process, a sample of members in each stakeholder group will meet to explore and test whether a willingness exists to pursue such an effort, and to find stakeholders who will commit to the first steps. The paper lays out a proposal for stakeholder mobilisation.

When the various stakeholder groups conclude that they share common interests that can be advanced by the model, they will form the core group that would initiate the model programme and govern its development.

Designed for success

This proposal is not designed to transform tertiary education in 54 countries at once. It is, however, an ambitious pilot programme that is designed to be successful.

Its success, transparently documented, will change the narrative about what is possible – and this changing of the narrative is itself another major and necessary step in the transformation of African higher education.

Although this model will be expensive – US$1 billion or more over a decade to start – its cost is modest compared to the amounts currently expended on African higher education that have failed to show major impacts.

It is also cheaper than the costs of recent disasters that better education might have prevented (such as Ebola), the cost of hosting a couple of weeks of the World Cup, or the cost of comparable transformative efforts, such as the modernisation of Eastern Europe a generation ago.

What is proposed aims to be transformative. It aims to bring Africa into line with the rest of the world, which now aims to massively leverage knowledge to advance national development.

At independence in in the 1960s, Ghana, Brazil and South Korea were in a similar economic condition; Ghana was actually slightly ahead of the others.

South Korea has now leaped into the league of advanced economic powers by closely fitting education with industrial development, and by aggressively leveraging global sourcing of knowledge and resources to build first-class institutions.

Other Asian nations have taken similar steps with strong results. Brazil and other countries in Latin America have come less far.

Ghana and its African peers, although they are well ahead of where they were, have yet to create a means by which their universities play the roles described above. This article outlines a plan to create that means, and provide Africa’s young people with the best chance to take their place on the world stage.

Phillip L Clay is a professor of city planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, and served as MIT’s chancellor from 2001 to 2011. Clay is experienced in higher education development. He is a trustee of the Kresge Foundation and a founding member and former vice chair of the MasterCard Foundation; both foundations have focused on higher education in Africa. He currently serves on the board of the Aga Khan University in Pakistan and on an advisory committee of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Email:

* This article comprises the executive summary of a full paper, titled “…In Hope and Work. The case and a model for the transformation of higher education in Africa”, by Phillip L Clay. The paper is an exercise in visioning and planning based on the author’s research and experience, in Africa and other parts of the world, in the kinds of transformation activities the author advocates for Africa. The views expressed in the paper are those of the author, and not of the organisations with which he is affiliated now or has been affiliated in the past.