Christian universities are growing rapidly in Africa

Christian higher education is growing briskly in Sub-Saharan Africa. It exists at the intersection of two of the most dynamic social trends on the continent: the rapid rise of Christian adherence and the volatile growth of higher education.

A century ago, only nine million Christians resided in all of Africa, and most were in Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s ancient churches. By 1950, this number had tripled, to about 30 million. By 1970, there were 114 million Christians in Africa. Today there are an estimated 555 million African Christians – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and African-instituted.

African higher education’s growth has also been rapid. In the early 1960s, there were only 41 higher education institutions and 16,500 students in all of Africa. As of 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa enrolled 5.2 million students in 668 higher education institutions, and these enrolments were more than double those in 2000.

African universities today are emerging from a turbulent half-century. The immediate postcolonial era brought high hopes with supportive governments and massive international investments. But by the 1980s, African universities were suffering deep financial cuts as falling commodity prices and inflated energy prices crippled national budgets.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund advisors pushed debtor nations to reallocate educational spending toward primary and secondary schools.

Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes suspected flagship universities of subversion and slashed their budgets. By the 1990s, even the finest African universities were in crisis. To compound these problems, the growth of secondary education drove a relentless demand for tertiary enrolments.

Governments mandated their flagship universities to enrol far beyond their carrying capacities. New regional institutions were founded and tertiary technical colleges were granted university status. Nigeria, for example, had founded 86 federal and state universities by 2015.

Even with increases in funding, African higher education budgets lagged behind enrolment gains. Thousands of African academics left to find work elsewhere. So what was to be done?

In 2001, the World Bank re-emphasised the universities’ role in national development. After years of neglect, Western foreign aid programmes retargeted higher education. Private funders returned; the 'Partnership for Higher Education in Africa', for instance, which engaged eight American foundations with universities in nine African countries, invested US$440 million between 2000 and 2010.

African governments began to charter more private universities and technical schools. In Ghana, for example, there were just two private universities in 1999, but now there are 28.

The expansion of Christian universities

Christian higher education has played a salient role in this rapid private growth. Nigeria has chartered 61 private institutions since 1999. Of these, 31 are Christian. In Kenya, there are 17 chartered private universities and 13 more with interim authority. Of all these, 17 are Christian. This trend is quite dynamic across the continent. Indeed, Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the ‘hot spots’ in the growth of Christian higher education worldwide.

From a broad social and educational viewpoint, this Christian university movement seems driven by the massive demand for access to higher education and the liberalisation of government chartering, both global trends. The religious scene in Africa, however, provides its own drivers of this movement. It is part of a larger effort to institutionalise, and thus conserve, the huge gains in Christian adherence.

Christian groups in Africa often look first to the educational needs of their children, but they also move quickly to train clergy. In 1950, there were only perhaps 70 or 80 pastoral education programmes or theological schools across Africa, but a recent survey found 1,468 of them.

As Christian movements become strong national forces, their educational aims are broadening to engage larger social responsibilities. Universities are a better fit than seminaries for these broader purposes, and more than a dozen of the new African universities have seminary or Bible college ancestry.

Church people start these universities so their own youth can flourish, but the institutions also aim to build up the nation. Most are open to applicants beyond their own young people.

Challenging mandates

The Christian universities face some of the same challenges that confront other African universities. From the state’s perspective, they exist to provide broader access, so their chartering often mandates steep enrolment increases and rapid development of new programmes and campus facilities.

Bowen University, a Baptist-founded institution in Southern Nigeria, opened with 500 students in 2002 and now enrols 5,000. Covenant University, founded in 2002 by the Nigerian Pentecostal megachurch Winner’s Chapel, now has 15,000 students. Uganda Christian University, an Anglican institution founded in 1997, now has more than 10,000 students.

Officials cite rapid growth as both a blessing and a challenge; added tuitions help their budgets but the growing numbers strain their ability to recruit adequate instructors and add sufficient facilities. Other challenges stem from Christian educational mandates. These institutions announce Christian purposes and perspectives for learning non-religious subjects and they structure campus life to reflect Christian norms.

Yet most of them welcome qualified students regardless of faith. Students might chafe at taking courses in religion and having religious orientations infused into what most of society sees as non-religious subjects. Some are frustrated by chapel or behaviour codes.

Part-time professors, so common to African universities generally, do not see why their teaching might need to be different in a Christian context. State officials have decided to accommodate religious educational partners, but wonder why hiring criteria, curricular development or student norms need to be different on Christian campuses.

These new Christian universities are very dynamic places, and their leaders express high hopes that they will help their nations flourish. But one of the main themes of higher education history has been secularisation. Broad state purposes inevitably rub against religious particularity, even in highly religious Africa.

Even so, Christian universities persist in the West and are rising up afresh in other realms. It is too soon to predict the trajectory of the African wing of the worldwide Christian university movement, but one cannot miss its growing presence and emerging challenges.

Joel Carpenter is professor of history and director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College, USA. Email: his article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.