The Changing Role of Higher Education in Africa: A Historical Reflection

By Woldegiorgis, Emnet Tadesse; Doevenspeck, Martin | Higher Education Studies, December 2013 | Go to article overview

The Changing Role of Higher Education in Africa: A Historical Reflection


Woldegiorgis, Emnet Tadesse, Doevenspeck, Martin, Higher Education Studies


Abstract

This article addresses the changing role of higher education in Africa from the pre-colonial time up to the 1990s. The basic argument is, though higher education institutions are a product of socio-economic and political dynamics of the society in the course of history, these interactions have always been imperfect in Africa since universities did not originally evolve out of social interactions. The introduction of European education during colonial period also did not serve the interests of African societies; instead education was used as a means of extending colonial ideology. After independence, African countries inherited fragile institutions which did not have social legitimacy from the public. The donor-client dependency relationship had inhibited the development of African institutions and the capacity of Africans to develop educational policies which are socially relevant and financially feasible. Thus, higher education institutions in Africa have been carrying out various roles of economic development, Africanization, nation-building, and engines of knowledge economy; at the same time executing foreign roles which have not been owned by African societies.

Keywords: higher education, colonization, Africa, reform, policy

1. Introduction

Higher education institutions have carried out various responsibilities since the time of their existence. The role they have carried out through time has always been shaped by the continual socio-political and economic dynamics among states, societies and the academic oligarchy (Clark,1983). Higher education policies and reforms have also been a product of historical processes which have been shaped by socio-political and economic contexts of nations. African higher education policy setting and reform measures are also reflections of historical contexts at various times. Thus, the changing role of higher education in Africa could be best understood through analyzing the historical context of the system at large since pre-colonial times. This article analyzes the changing role of higher education in Africa since the pre-colonial setting. To this end, the pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial higher education landscape and policy trends of Africa until the 1990s have been analyzed to describe the changing role of higher education institutions in the content.

2. Historical Background on Higher Education in Africa

Though 'modern' higher education systems in Africa are largely a product of European colonial frameworks, various studies indicated that the practice of education at all levels were there in pre-colonial settings of Africa. Prominent scholars in African higher education like Ajayi et al (1996), Assie-Lumumba (2006), and Lulat (2005), extensively documented the genesis of African higher education tracing back to the pyramids of Egypt, the obelisks of Ethiopia, and the Kingdom of Timbuktu. Abjayi et al (1996), for example, have reported the existence of one such academy referred to as the Alexandrian Academy or the Universal Museum Library at Alexandria between 331 and 642 AD. It is also on record that in 859 AD, the Al-Quarawiyyin University was established at Fez in Morocco while the Al-Azhar University at Cairo was established in 970 AD in Egypt (Lulat, 2005). The 2,700 years old tradition of elite education of Ethiopia with an African script called Ge'ez could also be taken as an example of higher form of education in pre - colonial Africa. One of the first African Philosophers of the seventeenth century, Zera Yacob of Ethiopia (1599-1692) was also a product of such African foundations (Lange, 1987). Thus, the existence of complex civilizations and higher education learning spaces in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans indicates that the practice of education at all levels was in place in pre-colonial settings of Africa.

By the end of 1885 after the Berlin Conference on the scramble of Africa, virtually all African continents were under the control of European colonial hegemony. …

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