No solutions yet to funding the ‘new’ African university

Funding crises have been among the most intractable problems facing African universities during the entire post-independence period. While the new agenda proposing a ‘new African university’ has focused on identity, potential missions and philosophical standpoints, few ideas on how to finance these institutions have been offered.

According to Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), the fact that the main financial aid for activities that support integration has to come from outside the continent does not put Africa in a positive light.

In the 2022 AAU publication, ‘Materials on African Regional and Continental Integration in Higher Education’, Oyewole highlighted how the shadows of colonial past in Africa continue to hang over higher education on the continent.

In the chapter titled ‘Barriers to African Continental Integration in African Higher Education’, Oyewole argues that many African universities are currently more interested in establishing partnerships with institutions of the former colonial rulers than seeking alliances and working together with their counterparts on the continent.

“Cooperation in the field of education, especially higher education, features prominently in the colonial-shaped integration,” Oyewole said.

Ramon Torrent, a former professor of political economy at the University of Barcelona in Spain and the editor of the publication, is even more specific on the issue: “Autonomy of universities in Africa raises a challenge as to how to reconcile them with social and political responsibility, when a part of their funding comes ‘from outside’, from the budgets of political institutions.”

Are funders owners?

In the book Creating the New African University, there is limited discussion on funding, although various authors point out the scarcity of resources in African universities that impact on quality.

Subsequently, there are questions about whether the funders of an African university could be said to be the actual owners, and if that is the case, whether they could direct the university’s agenda in terms of its philosophical foundation, research approach, and overall scholarship identity.

Contributing to the discussion about the search for identity for the African university, three South African academics, Uchenna Okeja, a professor of philosophy at Rhodes University, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the vice-chancellor and principal of Nelson Mandela University (NMU), and Professor André Keet, the deputy vice-chancellor for engagement and transformation at NMU, say funding a university is not a criterion for claiming ownership.

In their contribution to the book, ‘The University and the Dialectic of Ownership and Purpose’, the three scholars state: “If, indeed, funding establishes ownership, then just about anyone can claim ownership of the university.”

They explain that many private actors, including foundations and rich corporations, provide substantial funding for universities everywhere but do not claim ownership. Okeja and his associates also rejected the popular thesis that African universities should be owned by society. “The view that universities are owned by the state, or by their primary members, namely, scholars, managers and students, is untenable,” according to the authors.

New concept proposed

In the search for the identity of an African university, the group proposed a new concept of ‘unownedness’ which in their view would make the university part of the everyday life of the community and society in general, based on African knowledge tradition practices.

But the hard issue is that, whichever concept or character of the university model – colonial, neocolonial, nationalistic, decolonised, market-led, adapted-education, entrepreneurial, or unowned – a revitalised African university would adopt, adequate financing would have to be at the top of the agenda if that university were to accomplish the intended goals.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), African universities lack broad-based financing and have been facing decreased public funding for many years, even as countries tried to increase access to university education. In the 2023 publication, ‘Advancing entrepreneurial universities in Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa’, UNECA says that African public universities, the main core of the African university, attract limited funding from charities, trusts and alumni and rely on public domestic funding.

Even the much-acclaimed foreign aid for education in Africa is only a small portion of the total spending on education, as foreign aid to higher education in Africa is synonymous with a small animal with a very big roar, according to Joel Samoff, a professor of African studies at Stanford University in the United States and an expert on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa. “For nearly all African countries, the major source of funds for education is the national treasury.”

Many models, little success

In this regard, most African universities are in financial distress and many financial models have been tried with limited success. The most popular has been that of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s model that opened the floodgates for marketing university courses to those who could afford full tuition costs.

But, whereas such models may have increased access, with an influx of adult working students and other cadres who had been denied entry to higher education programmes, they have contributed to new forms of inequalities. Mostly affected by those trends are students from low socio-economic backgrounds, especially from rural areas and those in conflict zones.

In recent years, African governments have been introducing means-tested paying for one’s higher education, but such models have had little success. For instance, in Kenya, where the government has introduced a four-level means-tested levying system for university education, the process has become too complicated and controversial. Education officials have yet to categorise the students as vulnerable, extremely needy, needy and less needy.

The students in the category of the vulnerable and the extremely needy will qualify for 100% funding of their studies while those categorised as needy and less needy will pay 7% of their tuition costs out of pocket and the state will provide 93% in scholarships and loans.

Students choose cheaper options

What is emerging, is that many students and their families have started making poor choices, opting for cheaper degree programmes such as project management, community development, education and leadership, even when they qualified for high-profile courses such as engineering, medicine, commerce and law, that are expensive. In some cases, students who qualified for university education opted to study for diplomas in technical and vocational education and training institutions where tuition fees are lower.

Across the continent, the main question that is still bothering higher education planners is how to finance university education as well as provide quality and relevant education. To date, no country has come up with the right model and universities continue to face financing setbacks.

Unfortunately, African universities, themselves, have been blamed for some of the financial messes that they are in, as well as for many other problems that are barriers to Africa’s universities accomplishing their intended mission. Professor Yusef Waghid, a leading philosopher of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, identifies corruption and the abuse of power in higher education as key drivers of financial crises in African universities.

In this regard, the question remains as to how African countries can best fund universities that are structured within African contexts, not only to facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge, but also to link knowledge with action for the common good.

In effect, it is commendable of the authors of Creating the New African University to have opened the discussion as to what is wrong with the current university in Africa, but it appears there is a need for concrete mechanisms to fund the grand academy that would replace it.