Challenges Facing the University in Africa

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					Social dynamicS 33:1 (2007): 232–237

Challenges Facing the University in Africa
Ibrahima Thiaw

In view of recent and old concerns about the university in Africa, one may
wonder what the university is and does, and how African universities differ
from one another and from other such institutions around the world. Is
there a model of the African university, and if so, what is so specific about
it? Like any other university around the world, African universities are key
institutions for the production, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge
for the advancement and betterment of humanity (Gravenir, 2004: 534-35).
    This presupposes the existence of universals of what the university is
and does but opens the door for specificities granting that universities are
part of a global and local environment with which they interact and respond
in multiple ways. What the university is and does, including research and
development programmes, curriculum orientation, and public services, is
shaped accordingly and is inherently linked to local, national, and global
contexts and demands.
    Talking about the university in Africa, Professor Calestous Juma (2005)
emphasised the urgent need to create ‘a new generation of universities
that focus on solving community problems’, implying the existence of
commonalities among African universities. Those may include similar
or identical trajectories and organisations that shape modern African
universities today. Juma’s statement highlights the profound crisis and
overall failure of African universities that mirrors the problems of African
postcolonial states and societies.
    While many of these problems are rooted in the colonial past and may
require global solutions involving Africa and its diasporas, some are country-
specific, as colonial experiences and African responses were variable. This
is to suggest that the problems African universities are faced with are
equally local, including the difficulties of making adequate pedagogical,
organisational, administrative, financial, and institutional reforms (Gioan,
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    This means that solutions must be locally and culturally grounded.
Nevertheless there is room for sharing experiences and maintaining global
connectedness both within Africa and between Africa and the wider world.
But as Hall’s overview on the symposium (this volume: 182) points out, ‘these
aspects of institutional transformation are particularly demanding, and not
amenable to easy management solutions’.
    Indeed there is need to create a new generation of African universities
to tackle the continent’s many challenges including poverty, contagious
diseases, drought and hunger, misgovernance, endemic corruption, wars,
and social upheavals. Some scholars link these difficulties to the weakness
of research capacities in African universities which are unable to alleviate
the suffering of local populations (Niang, 2005). Regardless of whether
this interpretation is correct or not, one can argue that many of these
difficulties reflect on African universities which are characterised by morose
contributions to science and knowledge and are barely capable of uplifting
postcolonial societies and nation states that indeed appear helpless.
    Too often, African universities have been conceived and operated to
supply public servicemen to the state. To many African laypersons however,
the university is a producer of a westernised elite only concerned with its
own advancement and incorporation into European ways. This elite was at
the service of a state generally concerned with national construction. While
African universities were unique sites for protestation that counterbalanced
the power of the state both colonial and postcolonial, they were also tightly
linked to it (Sall et al., 2003: 130).
    It is timely and urgent that African universities break with these
received stereotypes and consider grappling with the problems and needs
of the people in the communities where they are located. According to
Juma (2005), ‘fundamental reforms will be needed in curriculum design,
teaching, location, choice of students and the management of the continent’s
universities’. He then lists a number of cases of successful innovations from
which African universities can learn.
    Curricular adaptation toward the specificities of the job market and the
problems and needs of the community where the university is located are
crucial for a fresh start. This, when supported by government policy, should
lead to meaningful change. It is likely that students’ choices for enrolment
will follow labour market requirements (Gravenir 2004). This will force
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departments and faculties to be more competitive to maintain themselves or
otherwise disappear.
    However, I am surprised that Juma considers curriculum change alone as
the healing pill. It seems to me that the diagnostic is much simpler than the
cure. How to design new curriculum in a context where research is stagnant
and where teaching load is overwhelming? Research is too often carried out on
an individual basis, and the evaluation of research and teaching is particularly
poor. Additionally, in many African universities, publication capacity is poor
and research infrastructures are too often obsolete, inadequate, or sometimes
simply nonexistent. How to deal with the extremely high number of student
enrolment and ageing faculty that requires renewal? How to stop the out-
of-Africa braindrain? How to redeploy or absorb the already educated but
unemployed population in new sectors of the economy?
    Many African countries spend billions to educate a mass of students
that end up either in foreign countries, or constitute a mass of unemployed.
Under these circumstances, higher education appears like an investment loss
in many African countries. These questions make me believe that a much
broader and profound reform than curriculum alone is needed.
    Although Juma (2005) indicates that ‘the task ahead is not simply one of
raising more funds’, it is more likely that it is one of the most crucial. It is mainly
because of the constraints mentioned above that many of our universities are
lagging behind. Any curriculum change, even focused on community issues,
will require prior quality research, publications, a lighter teaching load,
decent earnings, and revalorisation of the higher education system to fix the
teachers in Africa. For curriculum change to have any significant impact,
it must be accompanied by adequate research ‘infrastructures, including
laboratories, equipment, libraries, an effective system to store, retrieve and
exploit information database, a system to encourage, evaluate and reward
high caliber research, etc’ (Sawyerr 2004: 222).
    Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (quoted in Hall’s overview: 183) has pointed out the
extraordinary wealth of knowledge production in Africa and its emanations
from various intellectual traditions. While this may somewhat complicate
the search for solutions to the problems of the university in Africa, this is
undoubtedly a capital we should continue to invest in. To do that, we need
to appropriate and adapt that knowledge to African local realities in a way
that breaks with the traditional mimicry that characterises most of our
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universities today, concerned with catching up with a western hegemonic
system following a preconceived model. This is where Bogues’ (this volume:
206-11) concept of ‘epistemic decolonisation’ may come into play to help
restructure and reorient the nature and objectives of African universities
accordingly to African needs and demands.
    In this regard, the curriculum change proposed by Professor Juma
has potential for reorienting our priorities to solve community problems.
We should not however underestimate the hegemony of the western-led
‘knowledge society’ and its incredible pressure on global values, products,
and services (Sawyerr 2004: 214). While there is a positive aspect to this,
including a better quality of life (hygiene, nutrition, environmental protection,
governance systems, productivity increase, and so on), it is also clear that it
embodies western political, economic, and institutional hegemony that may
constitute a threat to local knowledge and cultural values.
    A community-problem-solving curriculum, to perform in the global
competition, will more likely borrow technical and managerial skills from the
knowledge society. Fortunately, African societies have, over the past centuries,
accumulated considerable knowledge on how to acquire, adapt, take advantage
of, and reduce the risks posed by the spread of the knowledge society.
    However, it is symptomatic to note the huge gap between the African
universities’ elites and the ordinary citizens. This is particularly perceptible
in some of the social sciences where ordinary citizens remain ‘ethnographic
objects’ to satisfy western curiosity. This relation inherited from the colonial era
is perpetuated uncritically. In my own field, archaeology, it is not unusual that
a local community living nearby a site will develop high hopes about a research
programme, only to realise in the end that it made no difference in their daily
hardship (Thiaw, 2003). Therefore, a community-problem-solving curriculum
must be accompanied with a grassroots public outreach where researchers and
community members mutually listen to one another and develop long-term
goals that may impact positively on the life of the community.
    It is crucial that the community entrusts local scholars with their problems.
This is important because, as pointed out above, African universities have
long been associated with western values and their knowledge base was
considered western. There was then a certain suspicion in respect to western
and even local scholars who were, too often, viewed as western emissaries
(Sall et al., 2003: 131). It is through this interaction between scholars and the
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community where they are located, that better-defined community needs
can be established, appropriate policy choices made, and correct selection
made of the kind of external expertise needed.
   Unfortunately, the sources of funding in African universities are too
often externally generated. As such they define the priorities and fix the
goals and the means to achieve them. There lies Africa’s eternal problem:
funding. It is perhaps time to prioritise the use of our meagre resources by
defining strategic sectors crucial for economic and social development. The
university can be one of those sectors.
   Recently the Bank for Africa Development (BAD) pledged to fund what
is known as the ‘reform LMD’ (License [Bachelors], Maîtrise [Masters],
Doctorat [Doctorate]) in francophone West Africa. The reform aims mainly
at harmonising the degrees offered with those of the English-speaking
countries to facilitate students’ and professors’ mobility. This reform also
seeks to boost research to meet national needs for development, encourage
the creation of collaborative research teams, and put in place competitive
and more reliable modes of funding (Gioan, 2006).
   While over the past two decades, efforts were concentrated on the
management and the prevention of crises affecting universities, new
concerns include the fight against poverty to reach the millennium challenge
in matters of healthcare, education, social and economic development by
2015. To achieve these objectives, a country like Senegal has decided to
put 40% of its national budget into education. Although this may sound
considerable, it seems that the crisis in Senegalese universities and in the
school system is more intense than ever as most of the money is diverted
toward salaries and other social charges rather than research, curriculum,
and pedagogical reforms.
   Another sad fact about universities in Africa is that scholars in Africa
are generally more tuned to research, technical and theoretical innovations,
and publications taking place in Europe and North America than from our
immediate African neighbours. Perhaps one of the keys to solving some
of the many problems our universities are confronted with is to develop
student and faculty exchanges, study and teaching abroad, to share expertise
and experiences. This will foster the development and circulation of local
knowledge and know-how within Africa while minimising the risks to our
own cultural values.
                                                                ibrahima thiaw         237

 Ibrahima Thiaw is an Associate Professor of Archaeology at the Institut Fondamental
 d’Afrique Noire, University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal. He teaches
 archaeology in the History Department of the same university, and his research
 interests include the long-term impact of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic commerce,
 the archaeology of slavery and the slave trade, craft production, culture contact, the
 archaeological study of identity, cultural heritage management, and archaeomagnetic
 dating. He conducted archaeological research in the Middle and Upper Senegal River
 Valley, in the Kolimbinne region in Mali, and in the area near Kankan in the Guinea
 region (Republic of Guinea). Since 2001, his work focuses mainly on Gorée Island and
 Coastal Senegambia. He is currently the coordinator of Senegal National Working
 Group in Archaeology funded by CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social
 Sciences Research in Africa), and in that position, is editing a book on ‘Espace, Culture
 Matérielle et Identité en Sénégambie’.

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