Book interrogates pathways to address challenges in HE

A new thrust towards the search for the identity of African universities has been undertaken by 16 scholars, who have been probing how African academia could construct a progressive future that would address rampant challenges within the sector.

In their new book, Creating the New African University, the scholars, many of them based at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies, or AMCHES, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in South Africa, say there is an urgency for African universities to decolonise themselves and cast away roots of academic dependency.

According to the editors of the book, Professor Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, the director of AMCHES, Dr Shireen Motala, a professor of education at UJ, and Dr Phefumula Nyoni, a sociology researcher at AMCHES, African universities are at the crossroads as they are yet to contribute significantly to the development of the interests of the continent.

Subsequently, the intention of the new book, according to the editors, is to provide an in-depth analysis of major developments and challenges that African higher education has been facing over the years and, more so, provide a roadmap towards a new direction.

What are African universities for?

In this regard, the authors of Creating the New African University, are trying to answer a wide range of questions that include: What are African universities for? What does it mean to be an African university today? What roles do these universities play in African societies?

The authors also interrogate to what extent African universities fulfil their core missions, while they also point out that pathways on how to decolonise the curriculum remain unfinished business in the African higher education landscape.

Saleem Badat, a research professor at the University of the Free State in South Africa and the author of one of the book chapters, says no matter whether established in the colonial period or post-independence, universities in Africa mimic European counterparts in terms of institutional culture, philosophical foundation, academic orientation, curricula and languages of instruction.

In a chapter, “Re-envisioning Universities in Africa as African Universities”, Badat explores the development and pressures that universities in Africa had been experiencing, especially during the post-colonial period, whereby those institutions are expected, not just to provide higher education for its own sake, but also to be purveyors of Africa’s socio-economic development.

Drawing parallels from other African scholars, such as Ali Mazrui, Samir Amin, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Mahmood Mamdani, who saw African universities as colonial projects, Badat says those institutions appear to be supermarkets selling generic public and private goods in demand.

Locked in by Eurocentrism?

In his imagination of a new African university, in a chapter, “Decolonisation, Post-Humanism and Justice within Higher Education”, Professor Yusef Waghid, a philosopher of education at Stellenbosch University (SU), thinks African universities are currently locked in and biased towards Eurocentrism that often confuses legitimate knowledge with European cultural standpoints.

Examining the issue, as to what is wrong with the current view of universities in Africa, especially in terms of teaching, Waghid notes that, despite attempts to undertake academic reforms, teaching and learning seem to have remained overwhelmingly concerned with knowledge transfer and acquisition and limited opportunity for critical pedagogical practices.

In his submission, African universities are stunted by their failure and unwillingness to tackle matters related to rising tuition costs, institutional corruption and the mismanagement of resources, gender inequality and sexual harassment.

“Africa’s universities also suffer from malpractices that involve bribes for marks, academic plagiarism and indiscipline, excessive student drinking and delinquency that exacerbate the crises in university education,” says Waghid.

Serving the public good

Indeed, the searches for the soul of the African university have been varied in the book and Aslam Fataar, a professor of education at SU, suggests that the primary mission of the new African university should be to provide a public good.

But he stresses that the public good mission would only succeed if it were tied to the plight of community publics that are excluded but live in the university’s geographic environs.

Initially tasked to produce human resource needs to replace departing colonial civil servants in the decolonised African states, the African university occupied the same pedestal with a flag, anthem, airline and a central bank that were considered as symbols of African independence.

But Joel Samoff, a professor of African studies at Stanford University and an expert on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, says that attraction has waned off and he thinks the African university has failed to contribute significantly to Africa’s socio-economic development.

According to Samoff, some of the weaknesses of African higher education institutions are linked to their inability to produce graduates that are critical to Africa’s development agenda. “Most of those institutions generate little new knowledge and their quality output is so low that higher education as a whole plays little useful role,” says Samoff.

There are also indicators that, unlike the colonial African universities that were extension campuses of the overseas metropolitan institutions and, in that matter, they were properly secured in terms of funding and high-quality teaching staff, the current African universities are poorly funded and suffer from brain drain, even as they try to educate large numbers of students.

Subsequently, many African universities have been struggling from overcrowding, inadequate physical facilities, outdated libraries and laboratories and loss of academic freedom, while academics who have not been lost to the brain drain are often underpaid and overworked.

A third generation of universities

In this regard, the question as to what needs to be done now, appears to have given impetus to the search for a third generation of universities that would shape the future of African society.

As Badat points out, most critics of the current African universities, especially the authors of Creating the New African University, believe the university in Africa today is still very much what it was from the start – an institution serving other than African interests.

In this context, Professor Crain Soudien, a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, where he remains an emeritus professor in education and African studies, says some universities in Africa are already becoming new frontiers of the needed radical change.

In a chapter, “Emergent Priorities of the New African University”, Soudien highlights several universities in South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Nigeria that are forging new pathways towards tackling problems in their local communities.

“I was struck by the scope of those institutions’ respective plans, especially their determination to learn from the past and shape a new African university for the future,” says Soudien.

Some of those new emergent universities are South Africa’s Sol Plaatje University, Mpumalanga University, and the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, all three in South Africa.

Others are the Pan African University in Cameroon, Pwani University in Kenya, Botswana Open University, University of Rwanda, Midlands State University in Zimbabwe and Covenant University in Nigeria.

But, granted that there are few universities on the continent that are keen to chart a new course and take on new missions, questions remain as to what they can achieve in the long run, as most of them suffer from poor public financing and high turnover of academic staff.

“Retaining high-performing staff is the main challenge for most of those institutions,” says Soudien.

Global in outlook

Contributing to the debate, diaspora scholar John Karefah Marah, a professor of African and African American studies at the State University of New York College, says the new African university should be global in outlook and should provide a unifying pan-African education and aim towards creating a continental citizenship for all African peoples.

That format of education, according to Marah, should go beyond being tribal, Islamic, colonial or neo-colonial, as past education systems that have been imposed on Africans have worked to balkanise Africa and miseducate Africans to be European, American, Islamic, or Arabic.

“Traditional systems of education in Africa have also been inadequate for continental African integration, because traditional African systems of education have been preoccupied with their own provincial concerns,” says Marah in a chapter, “What I Mean by Pan-African Education and Its Implications for African People in Our Global Village”.

But, in the quest to search for the identity of an African university, the voices have evoked further questions as to who should take charge of proposed reforms, taking into account that each African country has its own education system and has often been designed by former colonial rulers.

Nevertheless, in spite of unanswered questions, what is not in doubt is that the African university appears to have no soul of its own and has continued to rely on sustenance from elsewhere.