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Past Editorial : January 2017

January 2017

1443651948496African Higher Education: A Voyage of Bankruptcy and Championship

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu


At the recent RUFORUM conference in South Africa, Africa unveiled ten heads of states as its champions of higher education, headed by Senegalese President Macky Sall. This was a follow up to the earlier “African Higher Education Summit” held in 2015 in Dakar, Senegal, where this notion was first embraced.


The Climax of Bankruptcy: Harare 1986

At a meeting with African vice-chancellors in Harare in 1986, the World Bank argued that higher education in Africa was a luxury – and that most African countries were better off closing universities at home and training graduates overseas (Brock-Utne, 2000; pp. 218). This probably marked the climax of the impact of the flawed study that erroneously claimed that the rate of return on higher education in Africa was small and thus did not warrant investment.

As I argued on this matter elsewhere, this policy had three concurrent and immediate effects on the development of higher education on the continent. It (a) immediately affected lending institutions, including the Bank, directly, (b) constrained other (bilateral) development partners, and, (c) prevented individual countries from supporting their own institutions and systems (Teferra, 2005).


The Dawn of Hope: Peril and Promise?

For decades, African higher education languished under the shadow of the flawed policy of the World Bank economists headed by Psacharopoulos and his team. It took the publication of a seminal volume by the Bank (with UNESCO 2000) entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise to undo its impact and situate higher education as “key” to development. Other favorable higher education position papers were subsequently produced by the Bank – although none, as far as this author is aware, take full responsibility for the flawed policy and its major impact.

In the just published Special Issue of the International Journal of African Higher Education, a number of higher education experts, including those who played a leading role in contributing to Peril and Promise, discuss, analyse and critique the role, significance and contribution of the seminal volume. We have made a persistent effort to feature a range of perspectives and views from eminent experts (currently and formerly) at CODESRIA, the Universities of Bergen (Norway), Columbia, and Harvard, and the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (India) and formerly with UNESCO-IIEP, and the World Bank.


Euphoria: Growth and Expansion

African higher education has exhibited phenomenal growth and expansion in the past decade, with an estimated 15 million students currently enrolled. As some vigorously argued in the Special Issue of the Journal, this growth cannot be attributed to the policy shift by the World Bank as provided in Peril and Promise.

About a year ago, the Bank unveiled its latest rate of return for higher education in Africa, declaring that it is not only high, but at 21 per cent is the highest in the world. While this author remains guardedly exuberant – simply because no further justification and arguments may be required to support the sector – some question this ‘impressive’ record.


A New Strategy: CESA 2016-25

As a follow up to the MDGs, which largely ignored higher education, many hoped that the SDGs would situate the higher education sector at the heart of the development agenda. But as I argued elsewhere, while an improvement on the MDGs, the SDGs still fell short of aptly endorsing and fully embracing the sector as numerous development actors have done.

Among others, Agenda 2063 of the African Union articulates higher education favorably and robustly in its recently developed strategy, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-25 (this author is honored to be part of the team that developed it). CESA explicitly states and centrally locates higher education at the heart of Agenda 2063.


Developments and the Weak Link

Higher education initiatives – pursued by institutional, national, regional and international bodies, both old and new – abound on the continent. It could thus be inferred that, the sphere of African higher education dialogue seems to have diversified, if not shifted, into new frontiers.

African higher education is no longer the exclusive preserve of the World Bank. Its counterpart institution, the African Development Bank, now plays an active role, among others in supporting the Pan African University. While bilateral cooperation in higher education appears to be stalling, the European Union has emerged as an important player, working closely with the African Union Commission on multiple fronts. Furthermore, China is mounting massive higher education initiatives with Africa, and Japan and others, such as South Korea, are also pursuing a host of initiatives to stake their place in Africa through higher education engagement.

Despite these impressive developments, the continent has only two major African journals dedicated to the sector – the Journal of Higher Education in Africa (published by CODESRIA) and the International Journal of African Higher Education (published by INHEA in collaboration with the AAU) – which advance scholarly dialogue. The fast growing higher education sector thus requires more robust, diverse and systematic avenues of communication to advance it in a sustained manner.



African higher education has finally received its long-awaited, high-powered champions – heads of states. This could further situate the sector at the heart of the continent’s development agenda. In order to enhance the role of these champions and intensify their clout and leverage, as well as guide and support dialogue, a robust and steady supply of up-to-date information, reliable data and critical analysis – grounded in research – is imperative.

As noted, there are only a few journals dedicated to higher education in Africa. Yet, such journals are vital in grounding the dialogue intellectually, promoting the discourse and advancing scholarly and policy frontiers – and ultimately reinvigorating the sector. It is essential that in addition to strategically strengthening these avenues of academic advancement more popular and public communication ones – such as news, briefs, bulletins, digests, and blogs targeting a variety of stakeholders, including prominent officials, and the champions – are employed.

It is thrilling that higher education in Africa has emerged from a climax of bankruptcy in the 1980s into a new era of advancement and advocacy steered by multiple players, including high-powered champions in the form of heads of states. We hope that they will play multiple roles in vitalizing the continent’s higher education system through resource allocation and mobilization, and embracing and implementing favorable policies, models and practices while eliminating adverse ones.



Brock-Utne, B. 2000. Whose education for all? The recolonization of the African mind. New York: Falmer Press.

Teferra, D. 2005. Financing higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa. In The financing of universities: Higher education in the world 2006, Global Network for Innovation (GUNI), 153–164. New York: GUNI and Palgrave Macmillan.

World Bank and UNESCO (2000). Higher education in developing countries: Peril and promise. Washington and Paris.



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