The African University: A critical comment (an extract)

Published on Pambazuka News (, August 30, 2018

In 1970, Tanzania had one public university with less than three thousand students. Now it has some fifty public and private universities and university colleges with a total student population of around two hundred thousand. Much of this growth has occurred in the past twenty years. A similar story prevails across East Africa and Africa.

The expansion in numbers has, though, been accompanied by a sharp decline in the quality of education, research and intellectual output. The deleterious trend has affected not just the new institutions but also the old ones where the curricula and standards of instruction had been comparable to those at major universities in the Western world.

Apart from a few exceptions, universities in Africa now enrol students who have passed through a poorly run education system and a below-par scheme of examination. They are then herded through degree programmes with watered down curricula by academic staff who regard teaching as the last priority. Most courses lack good textbooks or equivalent instructional material. To pass the exams, the students just memorise the electronic PowerPoint slides from the instructor.

Undergraduate and graduate student research projects are shoddy in the extreme in terms of design, implementation and reporting. Plagiarisation, inventing data and obtaining external assistance to write reports prevail widely, yet are tolerated practices. At the end of the day, a graduate with an upper class Bachelor’s degree or even a Master’s degree is unable to write a coherent, grammatical paragraph in English, handle elementary items like percentages and ratios, or give a sensible answer to a routine question from his or her area of specialisation.

The problems also affect professional degree programmes like medicine, dentistry, engineering and agronomy. Both the theoretical and practical aspects of the training are deficient. If you ask a recently qualified civil engineer to compute the strength and direction of forces in a basic bridge like structure, a problem a good Form VI student can tackle, the answers you get will astonish you. A person with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature or History has read only a couple of books beyond what was the norm in Form VI students in the past.

The universities, especially the private ones, depend on student fees to keep afloat. It is a competitive atmosphere in which the administrators seek to enrol as many students as possible. High standards generate high failure rates and create negative publicity. It is not in their interest to urge the staff to adhere to such standards. Expansion of class size without a concurrent increase in the number of teaching staff compounds the problems.

Having paid the fees, the students feel they are entitled to the degree certificate. Instructors who teach elementary material and set easy exams are preferred to those who make them think and sweat.

The academic staff deal with the huge class sizes by turning teaching into a routine task, setting easy-to-grade, simple multiple-choice exams, and passing almost everyone. They are keenly aware that if you maintain good standards, it is you who will be taken to task for unfairly penalising the students and invite opprobrium from the administration and your colleagues. You are expected to conform, not stand out.

The academicians focus on lucrative consultancy projects, especially those with external funding, engaging in commercial activity on the side, and seeking opportunities for travel, particularly abroad. Even when they get extra pay for the task, they give lacklustre guidance to the students whose research they are supposed to supervise. Most do not keep up with the developments in their fields, or read relevant books or journal papers. Unless it is has external collaborators, their research projects usually are sub-standard. A lecturer with a doctoral degree from a European or American university may, at the outset, publish a couple of state-of-the-art papers in reputable journals. But the subsequent publications resemble what you see from local post-graduate students and get published in the one of the many of poorly reviewed throwaway journals in existence today. One cannot but conclude that the initial papers were mostly the work of his or her supervisor, who was also a co-author.

Academic promotions are a matter of routine based on a mechanical scheme of awarding points that side-lines consideration of quality. Hastily done consultancy reports earn you points. Being a professor in Africa today does not imply that you have made any significant, novel contribution to any field.

Areas of study currently in demand include business and management studies, accountancy, public relations, personnel management, journalism, mass communication, law, education and computer applications. Traditional fields like basic sciences, history and sociology attract far fewer candidates.

Yet, that is not how it was in the past. At least up to the end of 1980s, most African universities had adequate standards of instruction, student and staff research and publications, and applied rigorous criteria for promotions. A host of internal and external factors have contributed to the decline of the education systems in Africa. The primary factor has been the inability of the African governments to reduce economic dependency and institute sound, broad-based programmes of economic and social development.

Continued economic dependency has generated high levels of external debt, entrenched poverty and produced chaos across the educational sector. By the time the masters of international finance came calling, there was no choice but to yield to their orders. So began the mad rush to reduce state expenditures and privatise. In the early 1990s, health centres were closed, teachers were laid off and the educational sector starved of funds as foreign and local investors, bureaucrats and politicians grabbed valuable national assets at giveaway prices. As universities saw a further reduction in funding, experienced professors sought jobs outside the country, and others started growing pineapples, running bars and mini-bus operations to make ends meet.

The scope of the disaster generated by this reckless drive that was cheered on by the Western government and political pundits became evident within a decade. It could not go on. Hence another round of ‘reforms’ was instituted, again under the aegis of the Western nations and their agencies. The entry of China gave Africa a breathing space at the outset but ultimately began to reinforce the trends that have brought about the conditions we see today in the education and other sectors. Under the influence of the same international actors and wealth seeking politicians, what was obtained is what is seen today. No wonder the children of the elite shun local universities and seek education and employment oversees.

The picture I have painted of higher education in Africa today is not an exaggeration. It is the reality that no one wants to talk about. The local and foreign experts and organisations focus on problems at the level of primary and secondary education. They do not realise that the rot starts at the top, whereby ill-qualified academics churn out uneducated graduates in a factory like fashion, graduates who are expected to be good teachers, managers, doctors or engineers. Regional and national regulatory bodies, when they start paying attention, do not address the fundamental problems like the quality of research and teaching. The often-heard solutions to the malady of under-qualified graduates are imparting ‘entrepreneurial skills’ and more attention to computer based skills.

The mostly self-serving experts and academics from outside do not desire to offend their hosts. Though they see the serious nature of the malaise, at best they address a minor problem here and there. Concerned local scholars do not want to alienate their colleagues, draw the ire of the state and administration, or jeopardize their future. So they too address tangential matters.

Under this culture of silence, mediocrity at the top of the education system breeds mediocrity throughout the system. Education loses meaning. It is not what you know or can do, but the certificate you hold and the connections you have that will land you a good job.

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