The role for African universities in a changing world.

Author:Coker-Kolo, Doyin


Education can be the difference between a life of grinding poverty and the potential for a full and secure one; between a child dying from preventable disease, and families raised in healthy environments ... between countries ripped apart by poverty and conflict, and access to secure and sustainable development. (2)

In a global environment characterized by continuous social, political and economic changes, the universities of Africa have a vital role to play in helping with the socio-economic development of the continent. The answer to many of the challenges facing the region can and should be found at the universities. Because a significant portion of a developing country's gross national product (GNP) goes to support its universities, it behooves African universities to engage in activities that will aid in development without detracting from their teaching role and scholarly activities.

Although overall revenue allocation has been declining, African countries still invest heavily in education at all levels and considerably higher at the tertiary than the basic educational level. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2009), (3)Africa's public expenditure on a tertiary student amounts to four to eleven times that of a secondary student. In Niger, it is 46% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita for a secondary student versus 371% of GDP per capita for a tertiary student. In Chad, Madagascar, and Togo, the cost is eight to eleven times more for a tertiary student than a secondary student (348%, 145%, and 162%, respectively, versus 29%, 13%, and 20%, respectively, expressed as GDP per capita). The benefit of such investments is shown in the area of capacity building, where a strong link has been found to exist between the levels of graduate expertise in science and technology and the capacity of the local private sector to develop and produce local solutions to local problems. (4) Additionally, a significant (89%) correlation exists between levels of tertiary education and indicators such as GDP. (5)

Much is expected of the institutions of higher learning beyond teaching and learning. While basic education at the primary and secondary levels is essential to laying the foundation for equality and reduction of poverty in a nation, higher education plays a key role in producing knowledge as a driving force of growth and progress. According to Mamdani, (6) higher education is at 'the strategic heart of education,' hence, those who wish to transform general education must begin with higher education. Universities can provide appropriate education programs to enhance the quality of the labor force, perform basic and applied research, and offer technical and management assistance. (7)

This article essentially addresses the role of a public university in the context of an 'emerging' continent and presents ideas whose implementation can contribute to overall development of the continent. The authors focus on key areas where the public university can make a difference in the lives of its citizens. First, we examine the higher education system at its current state with a discussion of its challenges as a backdrop to provide an appropriate context. This discussion examines the socio-demographic factors, urbanization, 'brain drain,' and current state of African universities. Second, we examine the role of the public university. Third, we address the extent to which the public university can contribute to: (a) human resource development; (b) new knowledge generation; (c) public impact analysis; and (d) capacity building. These four areas of development taken together are a reflection of the trilogy of contributions in teaching, research/scholarship, and civic engagement.

Our discussion is tempered by the recognition of differences among African countries with respect to their higher education systems. Africa has both public and private (i.e., for profit, not for profit, religious and international) universities. Each type has its own mission, goals and constituencies. However, given the importance of higher education to a nation's development and the fact that "higher education is the strategic heart of education,' this discussion is apropos. (8)

Also taken into consideration is the historical background of African nations as former colonial entities and the changing expectations for higher education from independence till date. Peter Evans (1995) in Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation suggests that the history and internal structure of a state determines the range of their roles and expectations for the corporate market. Drawing from the experiences of Brazil, India and Korea, Evans discussed the role of the States in economic transformation as either developmental (involvement in the process of wealth creation, eliciting entrepreneurship and facilitation of the creation of new production capacity) or predatory (in which the state extracts but provides nothing of value in return). (9) In the 1950s and 60s when most African countries obtained their independence, the States' involvement in the economy was more developmental. African statesmen wanted Universities to train public servants who would take over the reins of government from the colonial masters. As the economy changed from agrarian to industrialization and then manufacturing, the needs of the countries changed and so did the scale of the government's involvement, investment and expectations from the universities. Coker-Kolo (10) observes that the nationalists saw education as the foundation for nation building and higher education was regarded as a lever for economic development and treated as such with increased attention to funding, research, program, and policy development.

The role of the founding fathers of the new African States in nation building was questioned by some who thought they did not always set the right priorities. Fanon in his classic -The Wretched of the Earth (1963) vehemently condemned the nationalist elites for bankrupting the continent politically, morally and economically but conceded that concerted efforts by intellectuals who are highly conscious of the needs of the masses and armed with revolutionary ideologies can move Africa forward into the new century. (11) From Evan's perspectives, African states are predatory not developmental; his hopes in the intellectuals to stimulate development makes it incumbent on the universities to increase their role in capacity building and facilitate the economic transformation of the continent.


To provide context for our discussion, the following four areas are examined: (i) the socio-demographic factors; (ii) urbanization; (iii) "brain drain;" and (iv) the current state of African universities.

Socio-Demographic Factors

Africa has a population estimated at 944 million and a high fertility rate (births per woman) ranging from 2.0 (Mauritius) to 7.1 (Guinea Bissau). (12) The dependent ages (65) account for 44% of Africa's population. (13) Angola, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda and Malawi have dependent ages at 49% of their respective populations. Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Uganda are at 53%, 51%, 52% and 53%, respectively, for their dependent age groups as a percent of total population. According to Velkoff and Kowa1 (14) in 2006, the majority of countries in Africa had a median age of less than 20 years. Having half of a country's population under the age of 20 and a significant portion of the population in the dependent ages' categories has implications for resource allocation within the country. These socio-demographic changes in population will require an inclusive policy wherein all ethnic groups and genders are called upon to participate in the continent's economy. These changes together with the devastation of HIV/AIDS epidemic have serious implications for the continent's economic growth and its sustainability.

However, on an aggregate level, the overall high fertility level overshadows the high mortality rate due to AIDS. (15) Furthermore, the population of Africa remains on a swiftly increasing trajectory. The high population growth rate and the subsequent youthfulness of the populations contrasted with the limited progress in expanding educational opportunities precipitated significant developmental and humanitarian challenges. The intense competition for education and jobs among the youth also contributes to the challenges. (16)

The impact of HIV/AIDS has been so large in many countries on the continent, significantly affecting how the age of their population and the availability of human resources for the labor force. Important contributors in escalating the epidemic are poverty, labor migration, and multiple sexual partners combined with certain cultural practices. Additionally, health care resources are grossly inadequate. For example, Africa has barely 3% of all health workers whereas it bears one quarter of the burden of disease around the world. Across the continent, thousands die from tuberculosis and other preventable and treatable health conditions and thousands die needlessly because they cannot obtain medical care from trained professionals. (17)


A recent study by Business Monitor International (BMI) on the development of urban demographics in emerging markets over the next two decades concluded that urbanization will be a key thrust behind the economic, social and political development of developing states. (18) Among the world's thirty fastest growing urban areas are the capitals of twelve countries in the Sub-Saharan region: Antananarivo, Bamako, Conakry, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Kinshasa, Lagos, Luanda, Lubumbashi, Maputo, Mogadishu, and Naroibi. (19)

Urbanization can be a force of great prosperity, but if not managed and supported properly, urbanization can also lead to great friction, eroding the societal fabric and ultimately leading up to the...

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