How to create a ‘new’ type of university for Africa

The landscape of higher education in Africa has been shaped by historical contexts, current challenges and future aspirations – an ongoing dialogue between the past, present and future that is influencing policy processes and reforms.

African higher education institutions (HEIs) have evolved since their inception, with many tracing their roots back to the colonial period. The relationships between HEIs, states and society have always defined the nature of the transformation of these sectors.

These institutions have been seen as agents of change, knowledge dissemination and development, with societies valuing their contributions towards societal transformation and progress.

However, their effectiveness and alignment with societal expectations remain a subject of debate. With 1,225 HEIs listed by uniRank in 2021, the system has been grappling with challenges related to access, quality, equity, relevance, finance and historical identity.

The discussions in this article are subsequently framed within the following questions: How do HEIs in Africa keep their relevance in the ever-changing context of the labour market? How do they transform their philosophy of engagement, ensuring social justice, greater access and accommodation of African epistemologies?

This article, therefore, seeks to uncover the essence and role of HEIs in Africa in a constantly evolving global socio-economic and political landscape. Central to this discourse are questions concerning the societal responsibilities of HEIs, their responsiveness to the dynamics of the labour market, their philosophy of community engagement, and their resonance with African contexts and values.

Moreover, there is also a pressing need to transition from a predominantly Eurocentric educational model to one that genuinely recognises and integrates Africa’s rich knowledge traditions.

The narrative captures the intricate and multidimensional challenges of HEIs in postcolonial Africa. The struggle to find an identity, to reclaim African epistemologies, and to serve both as centres of knowledge and engines of development is deeply embedded in the wider challenges that postcolonial African states faced.

In a chapter titled “Changes and Continuity in the Roles and Functions of Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa” in the book Creating the New African University, I outline four prospective trajectories for higher education institutions in Africa.

Towards a knowledge economy

Over the past 30 years, there has been a global shift towards knowledge-based economies, in which the intensive use of knowledge and innovation has taken centre stage.

In contrast to traditional economies, which prioritise labour, land and tangible capital, knowledge-based economies hinge primarily on knowledge as the growth engine. Hallmarks of this economy include research and development, or R&D, information and communications technology, or ICT, and artificial intelligence, or AI.

The dynamic interplay between the knowledge economy and rapid technological advancements has significantly redefined the role of higher education institutions in recent decades.

Consequently, Africa’s universities need to navigate and adapt to these evolving socio-economic and technological landscapes to stay competitive and remain relevant.

In terms of their mission in society, HEIs carry out four distinct roles: teaching, research, innovation and community engagement.

Historically, the predominant focus in Africa has been on the dual-core missions of teaching and research. Meanwhile, community engagement and knowledge transfer have often been overlooked or sidelined.

However, as the world tilts towards a knowledge-driven economy, it’s essential for universities in Africa to prioritise outreach to communities and businesses. Engaging in innovation and technology transfer becomes more than just an additional role; it signifies the direction African universities need to tread.

To firmly position themselves as key contributors to the knowledge economy, HEIs in Africa should:

• Cultivate a culture of quality, continuously evaluating the relevance of their programmes and services in alignment with national, regional and global market demands.

• Prioritise technological integration, encompassing ICT and a robust digital ethos, thereby creating a robust digital infrastructure for knowledge creation and dissemination.

• Incorporate tech-driven innovation strategies that enhance teaching, research, community outreach, and entrepreneurial pursuits.

• Develop innovative partnerships and internationalisation strategies ensuring collaborations at local, national, regional, and international levels.

• Develop community engagement strategies that promote consistent interaction with the communities within which they operate.

Re-centring Africa and epistemic pluralism for knowledge transformation

The future relevance and trajectory of HEIs in Africa are closely tied to their adaptability, resilience and ability to meet local, regional and global challenges. A core element steering the future of African higher education is its capacity for responsiveness, particularly to the ever-evolving needs of its stakeholders.

A prominent criticism directed towards African HEIs is their deep-rooted Eurocentric orientation. As Achille Joseph Mbembe highlighted in a 2016 article, this orientation is characterised by the dominance of Eurocentric canons in African universities – canons disregarding African epistemic traditions.

Consequently, the emerging African university paradigm should embrace a decolonial approach towards Eurocentric epistemic canons – especially those that continue to marginalise and silence indigenous African systems in the theorisation, production and distribution of knowledge.

The aim should be to transition from a monolithic educational approach to a more inclusive one that celebrates the richness of Africa’s diverse knowledge frameworks. Embracing indigenous knowledge systems and implementing a re-centring project within the current Eurocentric and hegemonic system is, admittedly, intricate and challenging.

Nevertheless, for meaningful decolonisation of African HEIs, the following foundational pillars should be embraced:

• Diversity of HE communities: All-inclusiveness should be the hallmark of African HEIs, where individuals, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality and origin, feel welcomed and represented.

• Pluriversality: Epistemic diversity is crucial. African HEIs need to integrate a spectrum of African viewpoints, philosophies and knowledge systems into their teaching, research and knowledge conceptualisation.

• Inclusive language policies: A revisitation of language policies is imperative. HEIs in Africa should champion multilingualism by incorporating a mix of African and non-African languages in teaching, research and publications.

• Cognitive justice: It is paramount for HEIs to recognise and validate the multiplicity of knowledge sources, offering equal acknowledgement to local and regional forms of knowledge. This could manifest in actions like giving equal importance to accredited and peer-reviewed local publications.

• Epistemic freedom: The academic and research ecosystem within HEIs in Africa should be one where scholars and communities can freely pursue their academic interests without any fear of retribution, bias or prejudice.

• Knowledge for the public good: Embracing their societal role, HEIs in Africa should transcend solely market-driven objectives, becoming more accessible and beneficial to the wider public.

• Formulate strategies for regular community engagement, ensuring a real relationship with their immediate environment.

Towards diversified higher education systems

African higher education systems, inherited from colonial powers, have long been following a dual model, bifurcated into either universities or colleges, with distinctions further drawn between ‘universities and grandes écoles’ in francophone regions and ‘universities and polytechnics’ in anglophone areas. This dual system no longer aligns with the diverse needs of modern African societies.

Differentiation, the emergence of various institutions tailored to socio-economic demands, offers a range of education options to students with different interests and capabilities, providing a better match for the labour market.

Diversification, as variations in the focus on teaching or research, institution types and nature of credentials play a pivotal role in recent expansion trends.

Nevertheless, to remain competitive and cater to various learners, African higher education systems must also introduce and expand micro-credentials, online education, blended approaches, distance learning, and joint-degree programmes.

Several institutions are already leaning into these models, ensuring that every type of learner achieves optimal outcomes. African higher education’s path forward requires a robust academic core and niches that resonate with national, regional and international labour markets.

In addition to disciplinary-based programmes, expanding more on multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary programmes that prepare learners for the ever-changing and complex labour markets is advisable.

Moreover, contemporary pedagogies that emphasise innovation, creativity and technology integration can significantly elevate the sector’s quality and relevance.

Besides strengthening university research, there is an urgent need to develop and invest in non-university sectors like vocational institutions, technology institutes, art schools, and specialised training establishments.

Such institutions bridge the skills gap by providing practical expertise instead of theoretical knowledge. Vocational training, in particular, is indispensable in bolstering skills and ensuring employability, bridging the divide between formal education and workforce demands.

Steering towards international dimensions of higher education

Globalisation has transformed higher education, offering both challenges and opportunities. Universities now prioritise global competitiveness and internationalisation, integrating an international dimension into their missions.

African higher education systems need to embrace international partnerships to harness knowledge production.

These collaborations could introduce fresh perspectives and enhance global competitiveness.

Internationalisation not only drives academic entrepreneurialism but also makes national systems more appealing on the global stage. However, these processes must be strategic and guided by principles of mutuality, reciprocity, equality, accountability and shared responsibility to avoid perpetuating neo-colonial dynamics or patron-client relationships between Global North and Global South partners.

Various shifts are necessary

The article presents a compelling argument regarding the persistent disconnection between HEIs and African societies, a phenomenon that has endured from colonial times and continues to some extent into the postcolonial era.

These challenges have relegated HEIs in Africa to a marginal position in global knowledge production. Some of the challenges highlighted are Eurocentrism, marginalisation of African epistemologies, elitism, the exclusiveness of the sector, deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate finance, poor educational facilities, problems of quality and low levels of relevance.

To address this, the article and the chapter on which it is based advocates for a shift towards the knowledge economy, embracing diverse epistemologies, diversifying higher education systems, and engaging with international dimensions while promoting progressive and innovative policies in African universities.

Associate Professor Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis is the director of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a co-editor, together with Professor Shireen Motala and Dr Phefumula Nyoni, of the 2023 book Creating the New African University. This is the first in a series of articles based on the chapters in the book.