Beyond the Crisis of the African University - Why Institutions Matter

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 in the 1970s, (later UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict) at the UN spoke out against the atrocities under Idi Amin. Makerere paid the price for its academic independence. Indeed, both Uganda and Ghana suffered from government under ‘the barrel of a gun’ (First 1970, 1972). 

As the debt crises bit and structural adjustment became the order of the day, tertiary education was cut by governments looking to save money. International institutions and bilateral donors argued that primary education must be preserved and expanded, and that early education was a social benefit but that the benefit from university education accrued primarily to the graduate. 

It is only recently that we have begun to hear again of success stories among the African universities.

The good struggles are crucial for institution-building

The first WIDER Annual Lecture by Nobel Economics laureate Douglass C. North stresses the importance of understanding the economic significance of institutions.

In a later WIDER Lecture, Lant Pritchett discusses the importance of ‘good struggles’ (see p.31) as vital for capacity formation and the building of democratic institutions. 

That can be said of UWC par excellence. June is always marked in South Africa as the month when the Soweto students rose up in 1976 against the inferior ‘Bantu Education’ and many hundreds were shot and killed in the streets. The University of Western Cape, initially founded as a ‘coloured’ university had its first student intake in 1960. 1976 was a turning point. Under Vice-Chancellor Jakes Gerwel—who later became head of President Mandela’s office—UWC became known as a centre of resistance to apartheid, and the ‘intellectual home of the left’. The university defied the government in the early 1980s by announcing that it was open to all races. UWC continues to pride itself on providing access to high-quality tertiary education for students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. To do so, it has kept student fees down to about half those in more privileged universities. 

After liberation in 1994, the full extent of educational needs and the inadequacies of the school system became apparent. The poor quality of school education, in spite of significantly increased spending, was recently analysed in South Africa’s Big Issue.

Standards are particularly low for maths, maths being an essential basis for science. A 2014 World Economic Forum report went so far as to rate South African maths and science teaching results the worst in the world. In a recent article in South Africa’s most critical mainstream paper—the South African Journal of Science—the editor argued that ‘Africa needs to get more women hooked on science’.

The University of Western Cape 

By the turn of the millennium UWC was practically bankrupt, and a merger with a technical institute was on the cards. But recent years have seen a remarkable transformation. Previous UWC Vice-Chancellor, Brian O’Connell, has outlined some aspects of the UWC strategy in a short video. He argues that in a country where 90% of the population are still poor—including the families of much of their student intake—redistribution funded by taxation will never meet the tertiary education funding needs.

UWC has the largest school of dentistry in Africa and trains half of all South African dentists. The National Research Foundation of South Africa, for the most recent assessment period (2007-11), places UWC ‘first in South Africa in Physics; Molecular Biology and Genetics; and Biology and Biochemistry, and second in the country in Computer Science and in Space Science’ (Dynamics of Building a Better Society DBBS: 167).

As a result of attracting US philanthropy, UWC has the most modern life sciences complex in Africa. It also has a new building for the School of Public Health. Through its North-South and North-South-South strategic research partnerships, it has built up its Institute for Water Studies and a centre for Research on HIV and AIDS (DBBS: 168).

UWC has developed a formula to enable students to break through the barriers of race, class, and gender. The gender split of students in science is roughly equal. In 2014, more women were awarded postgraduate (175 compared to 166) and undergraduate science degrees (239 to 183). The current year has slightly more male postgraduate students and slightly more female undergraduates with female science students still slightly outnumbering their male counterparts (1675 to 1649).

In his ‘Message to Convocation’, the new Vice-Chancellor Tyrone Pretorius laid out a plan for the next stage as ‘one of the key anchor institutions to help regenerate and shape the future identities of the areas where we are located, improve our neighbourhood’s capacity, accelerate economic development, bring university education and health services in support of struggling communities and help reverse the deleterious images of the city in historically under-developed areas’.

University of Ghana, Legon

State funding for universities in Africa dropped in the 1990s by up to 75%. Alternative funding models often produced unintended negative consequences. A government grant based on student numbers in Ghana meant that student numbers quadrupled during 1994-2004 at the University of Ghana, leading to impossibly crowded lecture theatres and an increasingly unworkable campus. A 2007 visitation by an international panel highlighted the problems and made a set of recommendations which have served as the basis for recent reforms.

Aryeetey highlighted some of the international partnerships that the University of Ghana is benefitting from and contributing to:

The university has spent US$70 million on infrastructure with four centres of excellence. At the same time the government’s share in funding has been decreased from 95% to 55%. Research priorities include the search for a malaria vaccine, climate change adaptation, food security and development.

Changing focus

The emphasis is increasingly on postgraduate training and research, as well as the calibre and qualifications of teaching staff.

Both Makerere and the University of Ghana are raising their number of postgraduate students. In Ghana the increase for Masters students is from 7% (2008/9) to 11% (2010/11), with a doubling of the number of doctoral students from 0.4% to 0.8% in the same period. For Makerere, the equivalent figures mark slower programmes; for Masters students from 4% (2008/09) to 5% (2010/11), and for doctoral students from 1% to 2%. Each university has over 30,000 students. Aryeetey points out that there is a long way to go on numbers of science and technology students as many students want to do business studies.

A recent study by the British Council Can higher education solve Africa’s job crisis? highlights problems on the continent; only 38% of the intake is female, quality is suffering and too few graduates are adequately skilled (p. 3). They also mentioned the ‘mirror image’ problems of graduate unemployment and disappointment by employers in the quality of graduates. The British Council is conducting a research project on ‘Universities, employability and inclusive development’ (2013-16) with partners in South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana. (p. 9)

Universities such as UWC, Makerere and the University of Ghana have not waited for outside help—they have developed strategies applicable to their own context. Some common threads are discernible—the concentration on research, driving up quality, ambitious new partnerships, improving teaching standards and the qualification levels of academics. 

In conclusion

It is interesting that each of these universities has a strong track record of a ‘good struggle’ and of building through adversity. Jamil Salmi spent much of his career as the World Bank’s tertiary education lead specialist. He argues strongly that you cannot just ‘buy’ a world class university. These are institutions which need to be grown.

UNU-WIDER has deliberately chosen a focus on Africa. Two-thirds of the 160 working papers published last year were related to African themes. Many were by African authors. By using a model which commissions authors where they are, the Institute aims to work against the brain drain from which Africa’s universities have suffered. As Africa’s primary education ‘bulge’ continues to work its way through to secondary and tertiary levels, it is essential that national education systems work well—not just a few star performers. But the University of Ghana, Makerere and the University of the Western Cape show that it can be done. 

In the UWC video, Desmond Tutu, still Chancellor of university at that time, told graduating students that ‘the sky is the limit’—how inspiring to be told that by someone who won the Nobel Prize before he was able to vote in his own country, and how true in a university with a leading centre for space science.


First, R. (1970, 1972). The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’Etat. London: Penguin.