Do universities in the Sub-Sahara serve the public good?

To what extent can higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa promote the public good? This was the theme that the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) chose for a special issue of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa. In their exploration of the public good role of universities, researchers touched on colonialism, commercialisation, elitism and corruption.

The guest editors of the special issue on ‘Conceptualising and Researching the Public Good Role of Universities in Africa’, Professor Elaine Unterhalter, the co-director of the Centre for Education and International Development at the University College London, and Professor Stephanie Allais of the Centre for Researching Education at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, worked with eight other scholars in probing the ability of African universities to enhance their contribution to the public good of societies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The researchers worked on a theoretical framework suggesting that public goods are commodities that are available to all and can be enjoyed over and over again by anyone without diminishing the benefits they deliver to others. Universal public goods include clean air, knowledge of public health, good governance, freedom from oppression, support for human rights and conflict resolution.

The philosophical concept was developed by Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), an American economist, who described public goods as those products or services that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning that they cannot be used to only benefit a certain group of people.

In this regard, the CODESRIA-backed researchers noted that higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa could promote the public good that has a wide range of instrumental and ethical benefits.

Unterhalter and Allais identified four pillars of public goods in higher education in the region, namely: equity and social development; funding, employment and economic growth; pedagogy and curriculum; and the lived experience of space and work in universities.

HE coloured by colonialism and apartheid

Focusing on four countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – the researchers were in agreement that higher education has the capacity to unlock the potential of Africa’s youth bulge and transform the continent’s commodities-based economies into knowledge societies.

However, there were concerns that in all the four countries, as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, university education has taken place within an environment of widespread poverty and in most cases is influenced by unjust and discriminatory racial, ethnic, gender and regional considerations.

According to Unterhalter and Allais, disparate provision of university higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa is still coloured by past histories of colonialism and apartheid legacies that ensure that only a small minority acquire university education in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The issue is that although university education in Sub-Saharan Africa has expanded significantly since the last decade of the 20th century through privatisation and aggressive marketing, the researchers pointed out that those initiatives have benefitted only the rich and elites who could pay for the services, whilst the poor had been unable to take advantage of those opportunities.


In their analysis “Indicators of Higher Education and the Public Good in Africa: A Dashboard Approach”, Palesa Molebatsi, an associate researcher at Wits, and Tristan McCowan, a professor of international education at University College London, said the effects of commercialisation of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa were undermining efforts to promote the public good by introducing hefty financial costs.

According to the two academics, although the markets for higher education define students as consumers and impel them to treat university courses as products for sale, marketisation especially in public universities has narrowed access, quality and equity in many countries.

The issue is that struggles and protests to realise higher education as a catalyst for the public good in Sub-Saharan Africa focusing on widening access, funding, academic freedom and curriculum reforms had been witnessed in many countries.

Indeed, the clamour for expanding access to higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa goes back to colonial days. According to Professor Ali Mazrui (1933-2014), the late Kenyan political scientist, during that period higher education that was thought to promote the public good was the one suited to produce agricultural and vocational manpower for the colonial economies.

However, according to the researchers, whereas postcolonial universities have increased over the years, they are still far removed from the realities and problems of peoples in Africa.

Elite spaces

In her study, “Mapping the Literature on Higher Education and the Public Good in Africa”, Dr Colleen Howell, a lecturer of international education at University College London, argued that instead of being carriers of public good, universities in Africa still largely remain elite spaces.

“They persist as powerful mechanisms of social exclusion and injustice,” stated Howell.

The central thesis of the CODESRIA study is that despite their potential, universities in Africa, not just in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria or South Africa, are falling behind in promoting the public good.

In that context, Christine Adu-Yeboah, a professor of higher education and teacher education at Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, made a call to the African universities to realise that mere participation in higher education is not sufficient for the development of the knowledge, skills and values needed to become purveyors of public goods.

“For instance, a good-quality university should imbue in its recipients the necessary knowledge, skills and values to help improve the quality of their own lives, that of their families and the nation,” said Adu-Yeboa.

In her study, “Expanding Higher Education for the Public Good: Ghanaian Stakeholders’ Perspectives on the Quality Dimension”, Adu-Yeboah highlighted financial and funding crises that are facing universities across Sub-Saharan Africa.

“In spite of the call for expansion in higher education to meet national development, investment in higher education by the state is minimal, which suggests that funding higher education may not be highly prioritised by the state,” stated Adu-Yeboah.

HE falls short as a public good

Amid efforts to expand access to university education, some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Kenya have been using a cost-sharing financing model to support expansion, which is contrary to the notion of higher education as a public good to be provided free of charge.

Commenting on the issue, Moses Oketch, a professor of international education at the University College London, brought into sharp focus the much debated questions as to who benefits most from university education, or for that matter, who goes to university in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In his analysis “Higher Education Finance as a Public Good in Kenya”, Oketch identified meritocracy, student loans and commercialisation of academic programmes as some of the financing strategies that have been used to provide higher education in Kenya.

Even then, these financing models are not unique to Kenya as they have been applied in other countries in East Africa, notably Uganda and Tanzania, and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, as Oketch pointed out, the cost-sharing model appeared to have benefitted the rich and other elites who could pay full-cost user fees in public universities. That means that higher education finance as a public good in Kenya falls short of Samuelson’s definition of non-rivalrous assets.

According to Dr Rebecca Simson, a research fellow in economic history at University of Oxford, and an expert on higher education in East Africa, a full-cost fee-paying admission system in Kenya’s public universities usually favours students from urban elite backgrounds over those admitted through merit, hence the emerging concentration of graduates in most African cities.

‘Use what you have to get what you need’

In Nigeria, neglect by the state and widespread corruption in higher education were singled out as the primary barriers that hinder universities from being vehicles of the public good.

Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development in the Nigerian capital Abuja, says that there appears to be a state-provoked class struggle in which many poorly educated youths are marginalised and excluded from higher education and social mobility.

In his contribution, “The Nigerian University System, Corruption and Erosion of the Public Good”, Ibrahim recalls with nostalgia, the state of Nigerian universities in the 1970s when public universities were almost world-class institutions and provided high quality education.

However, whereas the easy part of the decline of the Nigerian universities is linked to diminishing finances in the university system, Ibrahim says the complex story is that of the corruption of Nigerian society in general, which created a mentality of looting and wanton exploitation in whatever situation people found themselves in.

“In this regard, academic corruption has been identified as one of the most serious challenges facing the Nigerian university system in the form of academic malpractice and sexual harassment,” says Ibrahim.

To justify the rising tide of corruption and sexual harassment in higher education, Ibrahim says a slogan has emerged: ‘use what you have to get what you need’.

Subsequently, Ibrahim says the rich and the elite have removed their children from the Nigerian university education system and sent them to foreign universities where higher education is deemed to be of high quality.

In this context Ibrahim sees academic fraud in terms of financial corruption, sexual harassment, plagiarism and cheating in assessment as some of the significant drawbacks that hinder Nigerian universities in being vehicles of delivering public good.

However, whereas the scarcity of financial resources and academic fraud may be central to universities achieving the mandate of promoting the public good in society, Dr Mthobisi Ndaba, a sociologist at Wits, says universities also suffer hidden costs that academics incur as key players in higher education’s contribution to the public good.

In his analysis, “The Other Side of the Story: The Costs of Being a Public Good Academic”, Ndaba cited relational, psychological and career-related costs and identity contingencies as some of the less known and understood personal costs that are borne by academic staff while promoting higher education as a public good in African countries.

In effect, the CODESRIA’s study on the role of African universities in promoting the public good is an indictment of Sub-Saharan Africa’s colonial past and the extent to which its tertiary institutions have continued to suffer from a starvation diet, as well as being rooted in corruption and dependency, which has diminished their capacity to open their gates as a public good.