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Retrospective and Prospective Reflections on Higher Education in Africa

The paper begins with a historical background attempting to provide an African wide perspective unifying the often fragmented contributions of North Africa, South Africa and the rest of the continent. The 1960s occupy a prominent period in Africa’s effort to emerge from colonial rule, and indeed 18 countries gained independence in this period.  On the eve of this period Africa had only 27 universities.  The euphoria associated with the wave of independence of many African countries led to the ruling that many of the universities created under colonial administration as faulty in terms of serving the needs of the continent and generated dreams of establishing an African University, a developmental university that would be run and managed by Africans and with unique abilities to respond to the needs and aspirations of the African peoples and in doing so propel the continent to glory.  This dreams were shattered with the wave of military coups that occurred in the 70s and the 80s and the economic and social problems that ensued.  The nineties brought new hopes and aspirations as many African countries experienced better economic performances.  At the same time Higher Education became a globally tradable service with the coming into effect of GATS.

During the last two decades, Africa has  witnessed an unprecedented growth in higher education with the number of tertiary level degree granting institutions estimated to be as high as 1500, yet Africa still has one of the lowest enrollment rates at tertiary level in the world.   The African Union has been leading the continental effort to shape the conceptual role of higher education with no remarkable success.

The aspirations of building the African University lost momentum and led to a compromise view that what Africa needs is a contextual university.  More recently we are witnessing the creation of clusters and alliances of universities – such as the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), the Pan-African University, the RUFORUM universities, and so on. These are very exciting developments but there is a need to interrogate and understand some of the rationale behind these formations.  One of the most recent and highly significant events regarding support for higher education in the continent was the first African Higher Education Summit, held in Senegal (March 2015), which drew African leaders from government, academia, multilateral organizations, and the private sector. This summit resulted in a draft declaration recommending steps that would usher positive changes to Africa’s Higher education system. Subsequently, in October 2016  the AUC announced the establishment of a committee of ten African Heads of State that has been constituted under the chairmanship of President Macky Sall of Senegal to champion Education Science and Technology


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