Beyond the crisis of the African university - Institutions and economic development.

Author:Williamson, Roger
Position:UNU-WIDER Logo

29 June 2015

I recently returned from a week at the University of Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa, speaking at a conference honouring Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu who had been Chancellor of the university for 25 years--and had helped to encourage and defend students and staff during the hardest years of apartheid pressure on the university.

At the entrance to the university there is a wonderful, vibrant sculpture of a cleaning woman celebrating the graduation of her son--degree scroll in hand, both dancing in exuberance. Now, the graduate could well be a young woman celebrating the achievement of a science degree, in tune with the needs of a modern economy with skills shortages in science and technology.

In this article I want to suggest that there are clear indications of a shift in understanding--a growing reassertion of the importance of universities in Africa, an increased awareness that institutions matter, and, from the side of universities, a clearer understanding of the strategies necessary to regain a central role for universities in the region's development. In short, they need to be more flexible and entrepreneurial to make their way in the world.

In presenting the thesis, I draw on the Sussex Development Lecture (12 February 2015) given by Professor Ernest Aryeertey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon, who also chairs the UNU-WIDER Board. I was also able to benefit from detailed conversations with planning staff at UWC in order to understand their approach.

Aryeetey compares the strategy followed by his university and Makerere, Uganda. Only four years ago, Richard Kavuma was reporting on strikes at Makerere which closed the campus as discontented teaching staff reflected the general malaise of underfunding, overcrowding, and falling standards typical of Africa's public universities. Aryeetey now reports an altogether more hopeful situation.

Admittedly the universities chosen are not in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and all are from Anglophone countries. It may be that I am pinning too much hope on a few promising cases: the University of Ghana, Makerere, and the University of the Western Cape. However, with one from West Africa, one from East Africa and one from the South, it could well be that these cases are the green shoots of a university revival in sub-Saharan Africa.

A thumbnail sketch of the problem

In the early heady days of independence, Africa's universities enjoyed the dawn of Africanization--as newly independent countries sought to forge their own paths, and to staff ministries with their own people.

The optimism faded all too soon, and universities were often seen by governments either as a place for political patronage or as a place of trouble. For example, Makerere student leader Olara Otunnu, whom I met in exile in Oxford as a student...

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