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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Whither African Universities?

Ranking universities has become a universal yearly ritual. This is particularly true in a highly globalizing world that promotes competitiveness. Almost everything, from beauty to mediocrity, is comparatively paraded in global stages.

Thus, we had to be treated with another list of the world’s top universities lest we celebrate a new year without putting our universities in their proper place. This time Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) stole the show. Its fourth edition of ‘World University Rankings’ “confirms the message of earlier editions: the world’s top universities, on a number of measures, are in the English-speaking world.”

The phrase ‘English-speaking world’ could tempt you to think the list has a number of universities from ‘Anglophone Africa.’ But, alas, when you scroll down the list of the top 100 university you won’t encounter such a university. You will have to consult an expanded list of top 200 universities. Even this one will keep you scrolling down until you reach the end. There you will find the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Interestingly, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of UCT asserts that “international rankings are becoming increasingly important in a global education market". He believes that the rating bears out UCT’s “mission to be an African university of international repute.” His Deputy Vice-Chancellor is equally jubilant. To her, the ranking reflects UCT’s “international reputation for academic excellence.”

I can hardly tell if there was a moment of critical reflection on this ranking with respect to the state of African universities. Here I am not referring to a complex critique of its universalistic methodology. Neither am I referring to a convoluted critique of its global theoretical viewpoint. I am simply referring to a reflection on why, relatively, many African countries are not investing heavily on university education.

Interestingly, THES give us one of the keys to success. “Although heavily dependent on state funding”, its editorial declares, the world’s top “university are independent of governments”. Herein lie obscured the paradox of neo-liberal reforms of education in Africa. Ironically, our critical scholars did their homework of unmasking this obscurity while we were contemplating reforms. But did we hearken to them?

In the 1980s these scholars argued against reforms that aimed at reducing the role of the state in providing social services such as education. They foresaw that cost-sharing would transform education from an accessible public right to an exclusive private accessory. Hence they questioned studies that called for a restructuring of education according to the dictates of International Financial Institutions. One notable critic reminds us that these studies included World Bank ones such as ‘Issues Related to Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘Financing Education in Developing Countries’.

As they rummaged through these studies, the critics discovered that the “World Bank envisioned a stage whereby ‘programs or centres of excellence’ would replace the present university systems.” No wonder, Mwalimu Nyerere lamented that “they do not allow their firms to die out so why should they wish that ours collapse!” One can only imagine what went on the critics’ minds as they observed donors pumping in money to set up think tank institutions as prototypes of such centres. I wonder how they felt when their fellow academicians flocked to these technocratic centres in search of greener pastures.

The cyclic crises in Tanzanian universities are tied to that tragic historical legacy of ignoring our critical African scholars. You can see it through this official response regarding the issue of Ardhi University students who boycotted classes to demands for project allowances: “the allowance issue should have been directed to the Higher Education Loans Board” (The Citizen 28/11/2007).

The legacy is at work when a deputy vice chancellor attributes poor examination results to the admission of science students with poor qualification: “We have problems with science teachers in the country, so even when enrolling students in the faculty of science we consider that aspect” (The Citizen 24/08/2007)

You can also see this legacy through the concern of a respected legislator who told the parliament that he “was shocked too see in the prospectus of one of our universities half of its senior lecturers with degree qualifications from suspect online institutions” (The Citizen 19/04/2007).

A great thinker observed that “no prophet is accepted in his country”. Perhaps we take this statement as a credo and ignore prophetic critiques of our reforms. It could be that in doing so we forget that the thinker did not imply that we should not accept prophets from our countries.

As far as African universities are concerned our critics as still offering us evidence-based prophecies. Two volumes entitled ‘African Universities in the Twenty-First Century’ subtitled ‘Liberalisation and Internationalisation’ and ‘Knowledge and Society’ respectively attest to this. We don’t have to be like the king who did not want to listen to a prophet just because his prophecies were not too good to be true.

Let us fulfill this prophecy from ‘Beyond Afropessimism: Historical Accounting of African Universities’: “The challenges facing African universities are serious and disquieting, but higher education in Africa has a long history and will have a long future. And the onus for ensuring that such a future is a healthy and productive one lies primarily with African leaders, educators, and scholars, who cannot afford the morbid indulgence of Afropessimism.”

Author: Chambi Chachage
Source: The Citizen 30/11/07

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