African Universities Beset by Financial, Social Calamities

By Ping, Charles J. | Black Issues in Higher Education, September 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

African Universities Beset by Financial, Social Calamities


Ping, Charles J., Black Issues in Higher Education


African Universities Beset by Financial, Social Calamities.

African universities today are at a crossroads. At no time since their founding in the post-colonial era has the need to define higher education's relevance been more evident. The continent's academics, students and government officials are all grappling with two fundamental issues that will determine the direction of African higher education into the 21st century: adequate funding and the role of the university in national development.

The intensity expended in seeking answers was evident in the discussions held at a joint colloquium of the Association of African Universities and the Donors to African Education held earlier this year in Lesotho on the theme, "The University in Africa in the 1990s and Beyond." In addition to the constant repetition of themes familiar to me as an American academic, I found impressive the strength of the Africans' quest for relevance and their sense of obligation to society.

The much-discussed crisis in the African university was described by university administrators as first and foremost a financial crisis. "The biggest problem confronting African universities is lack of adequate funding," asserted the secretariat of the All Africa Students Union.

Continent in Disarray

The plight of the university reflects the state of the continent. Africa has the world's lowest average per capita income (less than $450), and unemployment affects 45 percent of the adult population. It is the one continent that is steadily growing poorer. Population is increasing at an alarming rate while the life expectancy of the average African is a staggeringly young 49 years. The modern water and sanitation systems we in the developed world take for granted are still uncommon in Africa; fewer than 5 percent of Africans have access to piped water, according to United Nations data.

Government is the only significant source of support for the recurrent and capital costs of African education. In the Anglophone (or English-speaking) universities in Africa, 85 percent of funding is by government. This compares to 57 percent in the United States and the United Kingdom, according to Jose Negrao in "Adequate and Sustainable Funding of African Universities," a background paper prepared for the joint colloquium. Difficult economic conditions and heavy demands on public funds limit the government's ability to respond to the financial needs of universities. Shrinking budgets are unraveling the entire fabric of African university life. All the attendant consequences of underfunding for universities plague African institutions: more students to be served with a shrinking budget base; overcrowded academic and service facilities; deteriorating buildings and equipment; critical shortages of funds for library acquisitions and laboratory supplies; lack of support for research; low salaries for faculty and staff; and deteriorating morale.

Enrollment Paradox

The facts of African university life are alarming Geremie Sawadago noted that the number of library books available per student dropped by an average of 85 percent in the 1980s; real faculty wages fell by 30 percent, pushing faculty salaries as low as the equivalent of $19 per month in Uganda. Research spending at some institutions has been reduced to less than 1 percent of institutional budgets, according to William Saint in a 1992 World Bank technical paper, "Universities in Africa: Strategies for Stabilization and Revitalization."

Additionally, in an analysis of data from the 1992 UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, G.T.G. Mohamedbhai reported to the colloquium that while the overall number of students enrolled in universities remains low, between 1980 and 1990, sub-Saharan Africa had the world's largest average annual increase in student enrollment in higher education: 7. …

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