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Past Editorial : March 2010

March 2010

Policy Discourse vs. “Private” Opinions: The Urgent Need for African Higher Education Think Tanks

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 invitation of the European University Association and Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions, I presented a paper in February 2010 at a policy workshop entitled “Towards a Coordinated Vision of Europe-Africa Higher Education Partnerships: Supporting Institutional Capacity Building.”

This event, which attracted an audience from Africa, Europe, and North America, explored the possibilities and challenges of development cooperation in the context of strengthening higher education in Africa, from the perspectives of both the South and the North. It created opportunities for sharing experiences, examining practices, and exchanging ideas across a diverse range of stakeholders that included representatives of multilateral, bilateral, and national development agencies, senior university administrators, policy makers and advisors, senior members of professional associations, researchers, and students.

At the conclusion of the meeting, it became starkly evident—once again—that the levels and quality of research, analysis, and communication about higher education in Africa still remain woefully underdeveloped. Speakers and participants vigorously lamented the lack of basic accessible data, in-depth analysis, and a central hub for information on the sector. Even the former and current leaders of higher education bodies were surprised by the magnitude of the knowledge gap in this area.

This editorial piece reflects on the interplay between institution-sanctioned policy positions and the scope and implications of private opinions relevant to higher education in Africa. The fundamental argument here is that there is a critical need to build robust think tank institutions dedicated to research, policy analysis, and information dissemination for the sector.


The Scope of the Problem: Snapshots from the Field

Three encounters from my own experience illustrate the complexity of the current context as well as the seriousness of the data and analysis problems in African higher education policy circles. Policy discourse, institutional guidelines of development partners, and private opinions float together in a blurry soup of ideas and positions, which ultimately are not effectively serving the best interests of higher education development in the region.

Research is an expensive enterprise and resources from such wealthy foundations are instrumental in enabling cutting edge research and development, as well as fostering enhanced teaching and learning. States, nations, and the global community as a whole benefit from these endeavors in many fields, including climate and environmental studies, energy, food security, and health sciences, to mention a few.

“Why Should the Economists Need to be Africans Anyway?”

At a meeting some months back with leaders and program directors of a major grant making institution to discuss issues of capacity building in Africa, one individual blurted, “Why should the economists need to be Africans anyway?!” The central theme of the discussion had been focused on the notion that, for Africa to make progress in development, it needed to train more “hardcore economists and high-level business managers.” Hence the need to support and provide preferential treatment to those fields and disciplines. All the available data however counter this argument as these fields and disciplines are over-represented in the region already. (The full reaction to this comment is available at an earlier editorial here.)

“Africa Does Not Need PhDs”

At the otherwise quite interesting February 2010 Oslo meeting mentioned in the introduction, I heard, with some disbelief, a senior representative of a European development partner argue adamantly against capacity building in the region through doctoral education. This individual maintained this position even when some participants close to situation on the ground in Africa presented first hand evidence to the contrary. At the height of the discussion the representative simply exclaimed “Africa does not need PhDs.” And yet various factors such as the aging of the professoriate, the exodus of competent and seasoned faculty both abroad and into fields outside academia, and the non-replenishment of depleting faculty ranks, have caused some serious concern for African academic institutions, which actually prompted some foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to help address the problem.

“Africa Does Not Need ‘Flagship’ Universities”

While conducting a program review several years ago, I found myself debating passionately with a seasoned higher education expert based in Europe who argued against “flagship” universities in favor of only expanding “community college” like institutions in Africa. At a time when knowledge has become a global currency for social and economic progress and universities globally are striving to raise their competitiveness, such recommendations are both curious and down right destructive. It is somewhat baffling that, unlike the person in the second episode above, this individual is supposed to have good insight into the higher education landscape in Africa. Even more worrying is the fact that this person currently enjoys considerable intellectual latitude in shaping the region’s higher education dialogue.


Anecdotes Here, There, and Everywhere: Are They of Any Consequence?

In all three episodes cited above, the absence of evidence-based, research-backed policy positions is striking. One central problem is that the various organizations in the region that are striving to advance African higher education are fragmented and lack capacity to thwart outlandish—even dangerous—views. In the absence of a recognized and fully accepted institutional authority, flawed private and personal views flourish. To be sure, it is not always for lack of information or data that many individuals and/or institutions take dubious positions and make questionable decisions. It is simply that some choose to be unencumbered by complex math, hard facts, and intricate analysis.

All these comments and opinions could simply have been disregarded if they had come from private individuals whose views have marginal impact on the policy sphere. Unfortunately, they originated from officers representing major organizations that are directly involved in the development of higher education in the region. Hence, the consequences of these ill-informed views can be far-reaching.

By their very nature and purpose, “development partners” are powerful leaders in society—and the world. The specific leadership role they play can be characterized in two ways: they are agenda-setters driving social and political reform; they are also financial investors whose sustained funding can “make or break” an idea, individual, or field (Kuper in Rosenfield, et al, 2004: 48).

Furthermore, the effects of these highly influential actors can be difficult to counter, as they propagate their ideas by “osmosis.” A concentrated, well-endowed, and well-funded idea diffuses widely—and forcefully—often beyond the original purview of donors and other benefactors. By selectively nurturing a particular agenda, idea, or paradigm, these powerful players prop up the existing dynamic that allows favored positions to flourish and all others to become stunted or simply wither away (Teferra, 2008).


Research and Policy Analysis: The Weakest Link

Africa still lacks strong mechanisms to support effective and meaningful higher education policy analysis, research, and communication in a sustainable way. Even leading authorities on the sector have been known to use inconsistent data and figures, which testify to this serious shortcoming. The Oslo observation is simply one setting where these gaps were once again diagnosed.

The need for robust research, policy analysis, and information and publication hubs cannot be overemphasized, particularly given the rapid developments in the African higher education sector, ranging from the explosion of private providers, the diversification of public institutions, and growing internal mobility, to escalating issues of quality and accreditation, growing interest in standardization, and the creation of the African Higher Education Area. Strong, visible, capable, and fully dedicated “think tanks” focused on higher education in the region have become increasingly crucial—and even mandatory. At a time of major higher education transformation in the region, multinational, bilateral, and other development stakeholders need to meet this crucial need—as part of the broader regional development agenda in general and for the benefit of the higher education sector in particular.



Considerable efforts are underway around the world to revitalize higher education systems and institutions. A wide range of stakeholders is involved in these activities, which include such action lines as building leadership and management capacity, boosting Internet connectivity, developing quality and accreditation regimes, establishing standardized systems, strengthening research, expanding international partnerships, and hosting major policy discussions (although admittedly often in rather haphazard and disconnected ways). Recognition is due to the efforts of all the organizations, regionally and elsewhere, that are grappling with the sector’s development.

That said, as the effort and interest to strengthen higher education in Africa gains momentum, policy analysis, opinion making, and research activities demand greater attention. The sector needs to be powered by a sustained supply of up-to-date information, credible data, and critical analysis to drive dialog, shape policy, and guide implementation. It is time for a serious discussion on the consolidation, establishment, and/or designation of a dedicated body of think tanks for policy analysis, opinion making, and research on higher education in Africa.



Rosenfield, Patricia L., Courtenay C. Sprague, and Heather S. McKay. 2004. Ethical dimensions of international grant making: Drawing the line in a borderless world. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies 1 (11): 48–66.

Teferra, Damtew (Nov. 2009). Building Capacity in Africa: The Need for Coherent Policy and Informed Action. INHEA Editorial Series, November 2009.

Teferra, Damtew (2009). Higher Education in Africa: The Dynamics of International Partnerships and Interventions. 155-173. In International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? New York: Routledge.



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