Book review: Higher Education in Africa: Crises, Reforms and Transformation

Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu (University of Ljubljana)

Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu
(University of Ljubljana)

This book review is written by Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu, a Hedda master graduate who is currently undertaking his doctoral studies at the Center for Educational Policy Studies (CEPS) at University of Ljubljana as a part of the UNIKE project. Earlier, he has studied history at Addis Abbaba University, and obtained a MA degree in general education at Umea University in Sweden. His PhD project is titled: ‘’A Comparative Analysis of Practices and Impacts of Internationalization of Higher Education on the Academic life in the Centers and Peripheries’. 

In this review, he reviews the book by N’dri T. Assié-Lumumba, titled “Higher Education in Africa: Crises, Reforms and Transformation” (2005). arton962-9f7bc

Significance and organization of the book

This book is imperative for the fact that it deals with the complexities of higher education in the region of Africa. It convenes and confers the historical background of higher learning, the complex problems, their causes, and possible solutions for the African higher education. Chapter one  discusses the origin and mission of African universities, chapter two deals with cultural colonialism and its cultural effects, chapter three explains the crisis of higher education, the consequences of crisis and the need for change, chapter four clarifies the waves of reforms and recent innovation, chapter five is about new challenges with in the global and local objective conditions, and the last chapter elucidates the need for structural changes, transformation, and localisation of higher education. Methodologically, the book is developed on the review of related literature purposely African related.

This book tries to examine the historical development of indigenous higher education in Africa. N’dri T. Assie-Lumumba  describes how this indigenous academic institution had been interrupted and replaced by the colonial higher education systems and institutions. The author critically explains the complexity, diversity, and multi-dimensionality of the African higher education/university crises and its socio-economic, political, and cultural implications, and the need for a positive and constructive reform towards the indigenization and transformation of the higher education institutions in Africa.

Historical background to African higher learning

Assie-Limumba argues that even though, the contemporary higher education institutions in Africa are colonial originated, Africans were not new to the ideas and practices of higher learning before the advent of colonialism. The roots of the African higher learning institutions or the university had been a community of scholars, with an international outlook and responsibilities with particular regional or local cultures. Among others, the most famous Islamic Universities include Karawiyyinn in Fez (Morocco) in 859 AD, Al-Azhar established in Cairo (Egypt) in 970 AD, and Sankore in Timbuktu from the 12th century. The Al-Azhar is the oldest continuously operating university in the world.

Long and destructive activities of slavery and the slave trade and colonialism had brutally upset the dynamics of homegrown African higher education. The colonial systems and institutions replaced the indigenous educational endeavor. The opening of higher education institutions/universities has taken place in Africa since the 1960s, a decade when many African countries attained political independence. These institutions/universities were direct copies of the European higher education institutions and universities.

Assie-Lumumba has addressed European cultural domination of African societies and institutions, both in the colonial and post-colonial contexts.  She argues that European cultural colonization took place by force and by choice: colonial powers had manipulated and reshaped African education and at the same time, African leaders, policy makers, and some conservative African scholars, who have displayed a mindset and viewed European education as good as for Africans. For Assie-Lumumba, it is the result of dependency entraps and the colonial manipulation that convinced Africans to think that European education could be as good as for Africa. The relationships between Africa and the industrial countries were not merely a center-periphery type. Industrial countries, some international proxy agencies, and technical advisers, who make the nature of dependency vary from country to country, tend to exploit some aspects of internal weaknesses of the developing countries to get their consent to their covert interests.

Crises and consequences

In the first decade after political independence, the financial support from the ex-colonial powers was so significant that Africans were optimistic in the role of the universities. Countries fequently spent between 25% and 30% of the GDP on education. The share of higher education was higher and significant during the 1960s and 1970s. The educational crisis took place following the prolonged economic crisis started in the late 1970s. The international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have proposed the so-called Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that has further destructed the higher education. The global decline of the price of the African export commodities and the increase of the price of imported commodities, at the beginning of the 1980s, has eroded the optimistic outlook for socio-economic development.

However, following the economic crisis, the emergence of the philosophy of the so-called rates of returns, the Structural Adjustment Programs, and the adoption of the principle of ‘education for all’, the World Bank and donors purposefully and African states unwillingly, have given priority to investing in basic education, which resulted in drastic budget reduction in higher education funding. The World Bank dropped its aid from 17% in 1985-1989 to 7% in the years between 1995 and 1999 (Bloom,, 2005).

Even though higher education gross enrollment ratio is still lower than in other regions of the world, this sub-sector has been growing disproportionately faster than the national economies, causing the quality of education to decline in many countries.  Hence, massification in Africa seems to confirm the claim that “more means worse” due to the innumerable challenges faced by higher education institutions on the continent.

Moreover, higher education institutions, mainly universities have found it increasingly difficult to sustainably maintain teaching staff, lecture halls have been overcrowded, buildings have fallen into disrepair, teaching equipment have not been replenished, investment in research and teachers’ training has become insufficient, and teachers have been obligated to supplement their income by providing services to the private sector. All these situations seriously jeopardized education quality. Resource austerity in some African countries has led to staff runaways and student protests and strikes that have interrupted the completion of the academic year particularly between the 1970s and 1990s (Sintayehu, 2011).

Universities in Africa were not ready to respond to social needs and play the mission of development because from their inception they were alienated from the context of the broader society and the local business community. Alienation also existed within the university itself. Student representations in the decision-making processes were not or barely practiced, administrative practices were inefficient and highly centralized, academic freedom was irrelevant because the management body was government appointed, and some universities were political party affiliated. All these have affected educational quality and relevance.

Reforms and innovations

Countries such as Guinea, Mali, Tanzania, and Algeria have embarked on major educational reforms immediately after political independence, trying to ‘Africanize’ the higher education by replacing the colonial education system with an African-centered system, by staffing universities by African scholars and to serve the people better through vocational and professional educational programs. Access and equity was improved. Women, rural youth, and disadvantaged section of societies were emphasized. However, the economic crisis of the 1980s and 1990s had interrupted these optimistic reform agendas and limited access. African universities continued with all their old problems and the early post political independence reforms have become a “’passage oblige’, almost a ritual for all countries once they acquired their respective nominal independence” (Assie-Lumumba, 2005, p. 101).

New waves of reforms were launched following the 1980s and 1990s research-based recommendations. Researchers and policy-makers were preoccupied with the big question regarding African Universities: What roles and missions fit to African universities to prepare and support African communities to function effectively in the era of globalization and amidst severe and persistent global economic crises? The recommendations that were developed emphasized national and institutional variations and that no one recommendation could fit all.

The 1990s reform witnessed the opening of new public and private secular and sectarian universities in many countries. Most of the new universities in most African countries focused on a combination of science, technology, and agriculture. The private higher education institutions, on the other hand, focused on less fund demanding courses such as the business and economics fields. Both, the public and private higher education institutions claim to focus on labor market needs and trying to meet the developmental mission of the post-independence universities. Some of these new universities focus on either teaching or research or both. Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), centering in Senegal, has been playing a leading role in critical research, articulating African perspectives through its network on major topic such as gender, governance, and research methodological skills.

African scholars carried out a series of studies to assess the effects and efficiencies of the 1990s reforms in 2001 and 2002. The findings of the study have concluded that even though reforms and innovations are always in the pipeline, they could not escape to be bondages of the influences of the international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank. According to the study, this was caused by the problem of convincing African governments and the African society to make an investment in knowledge development and production in the face of the economic and higher education crises. Actually, Africa is not yet able to respond to the big question. The situation has become more complex in the context of many and growing global challenges and local objective conditions.

Recommendations and conclusions

Assie-Lumumba (2005) is making a reflection on the required action for the transformation of higher education in African societies. She proposes that higher education in Africa must be re-conceptualized as a public good. To attain this, it is important to indigenize and own the higher education institutions, and forge constructive and empowering partnerships around the world. The role of the Diaspora in indigenizing, empowering, and owning the African higher education institution is significant. Assie-Lumumba, also adds the importance and contribution of the effective utilization of information and communication technologies in the achievement of the new goals of social progress.

What type of higher education is best suited for Africans to promote structural change? The suggestion is that “education in its various disciplinary forms, including its philosophy, science, technology, and knowledge base, must be reconnected to the African culture. African philosophy provides the foundation of African education. This philosophy of botho or Ubuntu that is defined by its humanistic nature can help re-center African education around the collective well-being of the African people” (Assie-Lumumba, 2005, p.130).

To explain the difference between the European and African philosophies of education, Assie-Lumumba (2005) has quoted Mudimbe (1988) as follows: “Western philosophy accepts as its starting point the notion of an unconstrained and uncontextualized ‘I’ – that is, an ‘I’ defined in relation to the self and its inner being, rather than in relation to others. The African mode, however, seems more communal and emphasizes an ‘I’ that is always connected to and in relationship with others” (Assie-Lumumba, 2005, p.130). African ethos generally refer “to be is necessarily to be in relation to others and the center is a human being who is free and at the same time highly dependent upon others, on the memory of the past, and on emphasizing the balance between nature and culture” (Assie-Lumumba, 2005, p.130).

The process of indigenizing, democratizing, effectuating African higher education institutions should be observed within the perspectives of the global scenario. Democratization of African higher education should take place from a pan-African or continental perspective as well. African governments and its partners should stop understanding the university as technicist or linear. African problems are better threated by Africans themselves without rapturing the relationship with the outside world, but making it more constructive and useful. Moreover, the international partnership and cooperation of African higher education requires reconsideration because it had been marked by unequal donor-receiver syndrome and treated Africans as beggars. Generally, to accomplish effective structural change and to ensure genuine and sustainable social transformation in the African higher education, it is necessary that Africans appropriate the institutions and own the process of change.

Why this book is so relevant

Higher education institutions in Africa were unable to play the significant regional and national socio-economic and cultural roles because of internal, external, historical, and current problems. It is undeniable that colonialism and neo-colonialism have triggered the crises and challenges. Assie-Lumumba has critically explained the relationship between African higher education and colonialism and neo-colonialism. For how long, however, do Africans attach all problems to colonialism? Assie-Lumumba has emasculated, in her analysis and critics the role of internal factors. Africans also lost self-esteem and courage, and failed to establish fertile socio-political grounds within the existing environment to enable universities play their role in the national development. The internal political turmoil, absence of democracy, corruption, and the recurrent armed conflicts also prevented the universities of Africa from playing their expected socio-economic and cultural role in the national development. Lack of mutual-trust between the political and academic elites is also the other setbacks for the limitations.

It is true that the foreign impact is strong and destructive. The articulation and implementation of reforms and innovations of African higher education should consider the grabbing and complex social context, and multiplicity of voices and positions that seriously affect and influence the objectives and processes of planned changes. African should be aware of all these situations. However, Africans were and are not ready socially and politically to appropriate what Europeans have brought to them to use to the best of their interests through grounding in African culture like the Japanese and South Koreans, who are considered as selective borrowing and who fuse culture by choice.


Assie-Lumumba, N’dri T. (2005). Higher Education in Africa: Crises, Reforms and Transformation. Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Bloom, David, Canning, David and Chan, Kevin. (2005). Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa. Harvard University

Sintayehu Kassaye. (2011). An Analysis of Higher Education Cost Sharing Implementation in Ethiopia (MA Thesis). Portugal:  Aviero University