In defence of flagship universities

Flagship universities in Africa are the most important higher learning institutions in their respective countries. In a number of cases these institutions are also prominent in their respective sub-regions. Newly established institutions in new nation states, such as South Sudan and others emerging from conflict, often rely on them to train their academics and build their intelligentsia. Thus, flagship universities are capacity builders and trendsetters in their countries and sub-regions.

This article briefly discusses a couple of key issues, including the implications of isomorphism in the context of African flagship universities, the imperative of differentiation, the notion of the ivory tower and shifting governance trends on the continent.

Isomorphic forces recalled – Expounded

The concept of institutional isomorphism was primarily developed by Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell (1983) in their classical piece entitled “The Iron Cage Revisited”, which critically analysed the characteristics that make institutions more similar than different. They identified three main types of institutional isomorphism: normative, coercive and mimetic. The concept is a useful tool in understanding the modern organisational trajectory, including universities.

The isomorphic powers of flagship universities in their respective countries are direct and potent. These institutional powers, manifested in the three forms, have been augmented by a 'genetic' heritage which these universities contributed to many of the later institutions which arose as independent universities.

The newly 'grafted' institutions, which became independent entities but with a similar 'genetic makeup' to the 'mother' institutions, that is, the flagship universities, inherited the curricula and programmes, institutional culture, organisational and management formation, and personnel of the mother institution.

It could thus be argued that the fourth element of institutional isomorphism rooted in a 'genetic' heritage that fosters isomorphic characteristics in institutional evolution is as potent as the other three.

The imperative for differentiation

If isomorphism is about uniformity, differentiation is about variety. These two phenomena are in constant tension, more so now that the higher education sector is witnessing massive growth and expansion.

Conversations on the need for a differentiated (Teferra, 2015b) national higher education system are often sensitive and acrimonious as they are laced with ethnic, religious, political, historical and other issues. Even in countries where ambiguities with regard to hierarchies do not exist and 'gene-driven' isomorphic forms are at work, flagship universities are not always explicitly and formally granted that status.

However, the opening of numerous higher education institutions makes it imperative to officially declare such universities the countries’ flagship institutions. This would help to provide these institutions with the requisite financial, logistical, material and political support.

Countries which may be dodging the issue of differentiation or ignore these institutions, for whatever reasons, may do so at their own peril. Ajayi (1973) noted that, when universities are simply regarded as pawns in the game of politics and the balancing of interest groups, they will suffer and the nation will reap poor returns from investments in them.

Higher education policies are likely to be most effective when national goals and objectives are clearly defined, and where such policies are inspired by a genuine desire to build dynamic universities with virile academic communities, and to harmonise their aims with national goals and objectives. This incisive insight, which is now more than 40 years ago, is more relevant today than ever before.

As noted in the opening paragraph, flagship universities are often the central hub of international partnerships in their respective countries. They attract institutions that are interested in partnerships with institutions with similar portfolios and-or standing. These institutions are increasingly sought after as partnerships with African-based institutions grow in importance.

Typically, a country ought to strive to build at least one leading university which is global in its outlook but local in its grounding. Unless one intends to go on the expensive track of building such institutions from the ground up, the best approach in building 'world-class' universities in most African cases would be elevating existing flagship universities which already have some brand, history and visibility, and human and material resources.

Blinded by subnational interests such as ethnic, religious and geographical issues, it is easy to ignore the tangible and intangible assets and capital of the flagship universities.

Debunking the notion of the ivory tower

The pejorative term 'ivory tower' has often been evoked to criticise flagship universities (and others), as much for their purported inclinations as to what matters most in the international sphere as for their presumed lack of relevance to conditions in their own backyard.

In the era of globalisation, where issues beyond a nation’s border have tremendous impact at home, such narrow and simplistic arguments of relevance must give way to more focused, long-term, and strategic international engagement (Teferra, 2008). This is particularly relevant to the flagship universities that are probably the only institutions with the propensity, and possibly capability for credible international engagement at a level that matters.

This study shows that while flagship universities have been dubbed ivory towers, they have made a remarkable contribution despite the rampant challenges they continue to face (Teferra, 2015a). If measures of output include high and massive enrolment growth, the sizeable production of graduates, and building key institutions, labelling these institutions as 'ivory towers' is on shaky ground.

The shifting, but symbolic, trend in governance

Higher education is well known for its slow, and reluctant, acceptance of change. This is particularly true in the leadership and governance arena. It is clear that the days of heads of state holding the position of university chancellor are numbered, possibly an indication of more changes to come, though this does not necessarily mean that their influence on these institutions, either through their proxies or directly, has been comparably diminished.

In this study, all flagship universities, except one (in Mauritius), are currently led by men, indicating the major imbalance in the leadership of these institutions and the need for a more robust effort to change the leadership profile.


African flagship universities represent an increasingly smaller, but key, component of the African higher education landscape. With the massification of the higher education system in both the public and private sectors on the continent, the flagship universities may have lost their predominance, for instance, in terms of enrolments. However, this trend seems to have helped to consolidate the status and importance of these national 'premier' institutions.

Writing on a research university, Altbach and Balán (2007) stressed that such an institution is elite and meritocratic, although such terms are not necessarily popular in a democratic age when access has been the key rallying cry of proponents of higher education for decades. Yet, for research universities to be successful, they must proudly proclaim these characteristics.

The authors add that research universities cannot be democratic; they recognise the primacy of merit, and their decisions are based on a relentless pursuit of excellence. At the same time, they are elite institutions in the sense that they aspire to be the best in teaching, research and participation in the global knowledge network. This argument is both meaningful and relevant to flagship universities that are Africa’s leading research universities.

As global competitiveness and the economic success of nations increasingly rely on their capacity to generate, develop, consume and market knowledge, the importance of the knowledge citadels – higher education institutions – has catapulted.

Many Asian governments have wholeheartedly embraced the goal of building world-class, research-oriented universities (Balán, 2007). In Africa, efforts to consolidate the higher education system may need to strategically consolidate the already better-established institutions as flagship universities to engage in this global catch-up.

Whatever the designation – 'flagship', 'research' or 'leading' – African countries must strive to build at least one key national academic, intellectual and research hub of international stature.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. He is the founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa and the founding editor in chief of the Journal of African Higher Education (former) and the International Journal of African Higher Education. This paper is a shortened version of the concluding chapter of a recently published book, Flagship Universities in Africa, edited by Damtew Teferra and published by Palgrave MacMillan.


Ajayi, JF (1973) Towards an African Academic Community. In T. M. Yesufu (Ed), Creating the African University: Emerging issues of the 1970s (pp. 11-26). Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.

Altbach, PG and Balán, J (Eds) (2007) Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America: World Class Worldwide. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Teferra, D (2015b) Africa’s Troika Conundrums: Expansion, consolidation, and un(der)employment? International Higher Education, 80, 18.

Teferra, D (2008) Internationalization of Higher Education: Legacy and journey in the African landscape. In D Teferra and J Knight (Eds), Higher Education in Africa: The international dimension (pp. 553-558). Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts: Center for International Higher Education, Lynch School of Education, Boston College and Accra, Ghana: Association of African Universities.