What makes an ‘African’ university authentically African?

Universities are vital institutions with great promise and contribute in myriad ways to society. But there are good reasons to critique universities in Africa, both those created by colonial overlords and those that emerged in the post-independence years.

If critique is about clarifying issues to inform social action, it means grappling intellectually with alternative logic for universities in Africa that can recreate them as African universities, which is the concern of my chapter in the book, Creating the New African University, titled ‘Re-envisioning Universities in Africa as African Universities’.

Relative to other regions, Africa is generally characterised by low student participation rates and enrolments, under-qualified academics and administrators, concerns about graduate quality, inadequate physical infrastructure, limited research, publishing and participation in global knowledge networks, political interference in universities, and insufficient public funding for universities to fulfil their missions.

If the African university landscape is institutionally and socially highly differentiated and diverse, for political reasons it displays considerable ideological and intellectual homogeneity.

Following the colonial vision

Colonialism profoundly shaped modern universities in Africa, implanting institutions that, in their academic cultures and organisation, were largely replicas of European universities rather than authentically African.

For Mahmood Mamdani, the university “began as part of the European colonial mission, a precursor of the one-size-fits-all initiatives that we associate with the World Bank and the IMF”.

Colonial universities “were unapologetically Eurocentric”, framed in terms of a European ‘universalism’ and patterned on the metropolitan universities from which they drew their academics, intellectual thought, curricula, methodologies, conventions and practices.

Achille Mbembe contends that one problem of universities in Africa “is that they are ‘Westernised’, ‘local instantiations of a dominant academic model based on a Eurocentric epistemic canon that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production” and “disregard other epistemic traditions”.

The critique is compelling. So, how do we re-envision African universities? Part of re-envisioning is to ask what they are for, to think about their purposes, functions, roles and goals in the place and space they physically inhabit. As important is what is entailed in creating African universities.

A sense of purpose is vital

The question of purposes is critical. For an institution to have a sense of worth, it must have a sense of its purpose. For African universities, those purposes must be associated, fundamentally, with knowledge and scholarship.

For former secretary general of the Association of African Universities, Aki Sawyerr, it is “vital to rehabilitate and preserve the notion, and to fight to reclaim the reality, of the university as a place of learning, reflection, and debate”. Achieving this requires universities to “take the initiative and resist the pressure to concede core values in the quest for the ‘survival of the institution’ ”.

One purpose of African universities is to disseminate knowledge and cultivate the cognitive character of students. The goal is to produce graduates who can think critically, have a detailed understanding of some knowledge fields, and appreciate how we produce knowledge about humans, society, nature, and the universe.

Graduates should possess historical and cultural sensibilities, be ethical and communicate cogently. Concomitantly, universities must enhance the understanding of diverse publics to create an informed and critical citizenry.

The second purpose is to create knowledge that advances understanding of the natural and social worlds and enriches humanity’s knowledge inheritances. This means testing past and current knowledge, reinvigorating knowledge and openly sharing research findings.

Core purpose shaped by context

It entails research into arcane and abstract issues and the “most theoretical and intractable uncertainties of knowledge” as well as grappling with urgent problems and applying scientific discoveries to benefit humankind. It also means undertaking inquiries that may not seem relevant but can “yield great future benefit”.

Increasingly, community engagement is considered a third purpose of universities. As ‘service-learning’, it connects with and builds on the other purposes and involves activities that benefit both communities and the learning and research of students and academics.

The core purposes must inform the roles of African universities, but they must equally be shaped by their contexts. Professor Louise Vincent observes that the matter of purpose “entails a deep engagement, both literally and theoretically” with the idea of ‘place’.

Place situates the university in “geography, history, social relations, economics and politics”. Place and space are dynamic, “never finished, never closed” and enmeshed with “heterogeneity, relationality, liveliness”.

Fundamental to the idea of place “is the idea of an open yet bounded realm within which the things of the world can appear and events take place”. Place possesses “enough breadth and space” and “room enough to allow an engagement with the world”.

Place implies community

Place is neither “objective nor neutral” but is “inscribed with relations of power”; how “power works in and through places has to be confronted”.

‘Place’ also “speaks to knowledge as context-sensitive rather than decontextualised and the need for a close relationship between theory and practice, as at least part of the measure of the significance and validity of the knowledge produced and disseminated”.

Rather than distance “themselves from their surrounding communities” universities must “actively seek exposure and collaboration – because that is what they are ‘for’ ”. This has implications for the universities’ functions, roles, and activities.

Critically, ‘place’ creates the possibility of a “transformed epistemological practice” that is “both embodied and contextualised”. This is to be contrasted with current epistemologies that are “disembodied (they assume that their standpoint is universal when, in fact, it is gendered, ‘raced’, classed, sexed, etc) and decontextualised (rooted in the dominance of Western paradigms, histories, and priorities)”.

Overcoming dominant Eurocentric epistemologies means producing “knowledge that is decolonial in intent and practice” and forging a “decolonial epistemic perspective” that is predicated on a “broader canon of thought than simply the Western canon”.

It is, however, not about imposing a decolonial canon that becomes a new orthodoxy. It is about robust engagement around the knowledge that reveals other kinds of knowledge and the existence of “diverse communities of problem-solving”. This enables knowledge creation to become “a collaboration of memories, legacies, heritages, manifold heuristics of problem-solving”.

Negotiate tensions and dilemmas

The roles of universities would give expression to core values, such as equity and redress, quality, democratisation, development, academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability.

There are always tensions and social dilemmas in pursuing these values simultaneously. They require difficult trade-offs, a fact that emphasises the need for deliberative and democratic university governance and decision-making.

African universities must play at least five key roles. One is encouraging “students to develop their own intellectual and moral lives as independent individuals” and building their “capacity to make disciplined inquiries into those things we need to know, but do not know yet”.

A second role is to undertake different kinds of scholarship – of discovery, of integration, of application, of teaching and learning, and of engagement – that serve different purposes, aims and objects. The key is a scholarship that confronts dominant Eurocentric epistemologies and theories and builds new academic cultures that respect epistemological diversity and advance epistemic justice.

Associated with colonialism was “the assumption that theory is the product of Western tradition and that the aim of academies outside the West is to apply it”. Instead, we need “to theorise our own reality, and to strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so”.

Cultivating humanity

A third role of African universities is proactively engaging with their societies at the intellectual and cultural levels and contributing to developing a critical citizenry. A fourth role is actively engaging with the pressing development challenges of societies through teaching and learning, research and community engagement.

Promoting critical and democratic citizenship is a fifth role. Africa requires, not only capable professionals but also sensitive intellectuals and critical citizens. Universities must be about the “cultivation of humanity”.

Theorising its purposes and roles does not exhaust the meaning of an African university. It must, fundamentally, advance the ‘public good’ – promote anti-racism, anti-sexism, equality, equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice.

The public good must be the “foundational narrative and platform” for universities to pursue a different path from their current dubious trajectories. It must not be assumed that public good ideals are held by university staff and students. What “public-good obligations and responsibilities accrue” to these and other key actors is an important issue.

Adequate resources for goals needed

Universities do not operate in a vacuum and cannot thrive in conditions of neglect. If they are to fulfil their promise, the state must thoughtfully and ably steer and supervise them (not interfere) and resource public universities adequately.

It must affirm the core purposes and roles of universities and ensure enabling policies, appropriate modes of regulation and the predictability and consistency of policy and must practise cooperative governance.

Supportive macro-economic, social and financial policy environments are also imperative as are societal and state commitment to guaranteeing academic freedom and institutional autonomy, which are critical for universities and scholars to undertake their responsibilities.

The purposes and roles outlined are ideal core features of African universities. It does not imply that every purpose and role must be undertaken in identical ways by every university. There is no value in uniformity and homogeneity. Differentiated and diverse national systems in which universities address different needs that span the local to the global are essential.

The African university will neither be realised overnight nor without intellectual and political struggles that involve diverse actors within and beyond universities. It will entail confronting complicity, resistance, inertia, and apprehension and requires collective and individual intellectual and practical actions and “everyday acts of resurgence”. The African university will not come into being through epistemological and theoretical work alone, only through political action.

Saleem Badat is a research professor in the history department at the University of the Free State in South Africa. He is the former vice-chancellor of Rhodes University and the first chief executive officer of the Council on Higher Education. This article is the second in a series based on the chapters of the 2023 book Creating the New African University.