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Colonialism shaped modern universities in Africa – how they can become truly African

An illustration of university graduands throwing their mortarboards into the air and waving degree certificates, against a yellow background
One of the roles of an African university is to produce critical and democratic thinkers. Vieriu Adrian/Getty Images

Colonialism profoundly shaped modern universities in Africa. It implanted institutions on African soil that were largely replicas of European universities rather than organically African.

For historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe, one problem of universities in Africa “is that they are ‘Westernised”. He describes them as “local institutions of a dominant academic model based on a Eurocentric epistemic canon that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production”. This model, he says, “disregards other epistemic traditions”.

My research is mainly on universities, especially on issues of equity, inclusion and transformation. In a recent chapter I grapple with what universities need to do to stop being inappropriate replicas of European universities. How can they become, instead, African universities that address African needs?

I conclude that, to fulfil their key purposes of sharing and creating knowledge, they must play five associated roles. These are: encouraging students to be critical thinkers; undertaking more than just Eurocentric research; engaging proactively with the societies in which they are located; using their research and teaching to tackle development problems; and, finally, promoting critical and democratic citizenship.

In all these roles, African universities must take “place” – the geography, history, social relations, economics and politics of their respective contexts – seriously. They must overcome Eurocentric theories of knowledge and western institutional cultures. In doing so they must advance both decolonial thought and the public good.

But the African university cannot be created through changing the intellectual lens and basis alone. Political action is key.

The importance of place

African universities must be shaped by their contexts. Professor Louise Vincent of Rhodes University in South Africa rightly argues that it “entails a deep engagement, both literally and theoretically, with the notion of ‘place’” for universities to find their purpose. Universities, she adds, are situated in “place”.

For Vincent, place is neither “objective nor neutral”. It is “inscribed with relations of power” and how “power works in and through places has to be confronted.”

This means that, rather than distancing themselves from the surrounding communities, universities need to, in Vincent’s words, “actively seek exposure and collaboration – because that is what they are ‘for’.” This has implications for universities’ functioning, roles and activities.

Read more: Toyin Falola: 3 recent books that explain the work of Nigeria's famous decolonial scholar

This notion of “place” sees knowledge as being context sensitive rather than decontextualised. Eurocentrics assume that the findings of research undertaken in Europe apply to countries and areas in Africa. This is not so. The continent’s universities must imaginatively theorise their own realities as a basis for changing them.

Five roles

African universities must play at least five key roles.

One is encouraging students, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai puts it, to “develop their own intellectual and moral lives as independent individuals”.

A second role is to undertake different kinds of scholarship that serve different purposes, aims and objects. Scholarship must confront dominant Eurocentric knowledge systems and theories. African universities need to, in the words of postcolonial scholar Mahmood Mamdani,

theorise our own reality, and strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so.

Third, they must engage proactively with the societies in which they operate. This engagement must happen at the intellectual and cultural levels. It is a crucial part of universities’ ability to contribute to developing a critical citizenry.

Read more: What happens when you put African philosophies at the centre of learning

A fourth role is actively engaging with the pressing development challenges. This is achieved through teaching and learning, research and community engagement.

Promoting critical and democratic citizenship is a fifth role. Africa requires not only capable professionals but also sensitive intellectuals and critical citizens. Universities must, in ethicist Martha Nussbaum’s terms, promote the “cultivation of humanity”.

Making it happen

The purposes and roles I’ve outlined here do not exhaust the meaning of an African university. Instead, they are its ideal core functions.

I also do not wish to imply that every purpose and role must be undertaken in identical ways by every university. There is no value in uniformity and homogeneity. It is essential that, within national systems, universities address different needs that span the local to the global.

But no matter their focus, African universities must, fundamentally, advance the “public good”. International higher education policy academic Mala Singh contends that this is the “foundational narrative and platform” for universities to pursue a different path from their current dubious trajectories.

The state has a major role to play. It must ably steer and supervise – not interfere with – universities. It must resource them properly, and uphold academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It must also ensure a supportive macro-economic, social and financial policy environment.

The African university will be realised neither overnight nor without political struggles that involve diverse actors within and beyond universities. It will entail confronting complicity, opposition, inertia and apprehension. Collective and individual intellectual and practical political actions, as well as “everyday acts of resurgence”, are required.

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