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25 May 2020 | Story Dr Munyaradzi Mushonga | Photo Supplied
Dr Munyaradzi Mushonga

As we virtually celebrate Africa Month in 2020, it is worth reflecting on the journey of the African university as a reminder of where we are coming from, where we are today, and where we are going. The emergence and development of university education in Africa can be conceptualised in four distinct phases, namely the pre-colonial university (before 1900), the colonial university (1900-c.1960), the developmental (post-colonial) university (1961-c.1980), and the market (entrepreneurial)/crisis-era university (1980-present). If we follow this scheme, with the Coronavirus and COVID-19 in our midst, the African university is entering the fifth phase. Just a week into the pandemic, African universities were already experimenting with various online learning and teaching approaches to keep the academic programme afloat, away from the walled university. 

Higher education on the African continent long antedates the establishment of Western-style universities in the 19th century and is traceable to the 3rd century BC. The oldest university still in existence is Al-Azhar in Egypt, founded in 969 AD. It is regarded as one of the leading Islamic HE institutions in the world today. Not only did the idea of higher learning begin in Africa, but the spread of universities into “Western Europe was mainly through the traffic of knowledge and ideas that flowed across the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa” (Tisani, 2005:2). 

Colonial universities were a product of the European colonisation of Africa and most of these emerged after the Second World War. Their mandate was to reorient European colonies through the idea of ‘colonial development’ as well as to “cultivate and sustain indigenous elites” moulded along European traditions; elites that would be crucial in maintaining links with the former colonial powers after the departure of the physical empire from Africa (Munene, 2010:400). Thus, colonial universities were among the major instruments and vehicles of cultural westernisation and assimilation, bent on removing the hard disk of previous African knowledge and memory, and downloading into it a software of European memory. Today, the continent remains dominated by universities shaped by the logics of colonialism. It is this resilient colonial university that decoloniality seeks to disrupt and to plant in its place an African university steeped in epistemologies of the Global South. 

Following the retreat of the physical empire, African states established development-orientated universities. It was readily accepted that HE was capable of contributing to the social, cultural, and economic development of Africa. As such, many universities were initially generously funded and supported by the state. However, this commitment only lasted for about a decade or so. The ‘independence’ university was overly concerned with first – ‘Africanising’ the public service, and second – with the anti-colonialist aspiration of taking over and ‘Africanising’ positions within the institution. The more nationalism turned into a state project, the more pressure there was on the developmentalist university to implement a state-determined and state-driven agenda, and the more this happened, “the more critical thought was taken as subversive of the national project” (Mamdani, 2008). Resultantly, the university lost its original mandate and the international policy environment did not help matters, as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suggested that ‘Africa did not need university education’ and called for the privatisation of public universities. 

The fate of the ‘developmental university’ was sealed in 1990 when the World Conference on Education for All prioritised elementary education. The increasing frustration with the perceived failure of the ‘developmental university’ on the one hand, and changed Western priorities and the inevitable influence of Western aid and Western academic organisations on the other hand, gave rise to the market (entrepreneurial)/crisis-era university. Since the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, many African universities have been under pressure to liberalise, following the retreat of the state in the provision of education. This led to various forms of disputes and contestations (#FeesMustFall is one of them) – contestations centred on the meaning, purpose, and mission of an African university (Zeleza and Olukoshi, 2004:1) in a fast decolonising yet liberalising environment. 

Today, with the Coronavirus and COVID-19 in our midst, one thing is certain – the pandemic will have a lasting impact on all national institutions, the African university included. It is not possible to predict the kind of university that might emerge both during and beyond the pandemic. However, the following questions might help us imagine such a university. What kind of university do we have (now/today)? What kind of university do we want? What kind of university do we need? What kind of university can we afford? These are transhistorical questions that have informed all previous versions of the university. Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to give birth to another crisis-era university. While such a university will be dictated by the prevailing socio-economic and socio-political ideologies and landscapes shaped by the pandemic, we should also refuse to allow the pandemic to define such a university for us. The COVID-19 pandemic should only be used as a stage for a ‘great leap’ forward. The pandemic offers the African university a fresh start. Yet, we must, as some Kovsies have already cautioned, guard against the temptation to respond to crises in particularist and isolationist fashions. It is time to overcome. It is time to unite. It is time to grab the bull by the horns. It is time for Africa’s place in the sun. #ONEAFRICA.  

This article was written by Dr Munyaradzi Mushonga, Programme Director: Africa Studies, Centre for Gender and Africa Studies 

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