A task as large as Africa itself

An academic struggles to tell the story of higher education on his continent

Damtew Teferra knows firsthand the many kinds of adversity that can overwhelm African academics. A native of Ethiopia, he watched as his alma mater, Addis Ababa University, was torn apart by civil war in the 1970s and '80s. Like many of Ethiopia's best and brightest students, he was finally forced to flee.

But Dr. Teferra never gave up either his studies or his hope that he could somehow make a positive contribution to education in his homeland. It was while he was working toward his PhD in higher-education administration at Boston College that he conceived of pulling together the world's first handbook detailing the conditions of colleges and universities in Africa.

At every turn, he found the publications on African higher education to be woefully lacking. "Most of what was written," says Teferra, "was too fragmented, and out of date."

But it didn't take Teferra long to discover that he was taking on a challenge as enormous, complicated, and troubled as the African continent itself. Civil wars, repressive regimes, poverty, and broken-down lines of communication were among the many obstacles to be overcome as Teferra worked to edit "African Higher Education," a book now finally complete and due to be published by Indiana University Press this spring.

Teferra began his project three years ago when he secured a $98,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.

One of his first goals, Teferra says, "was to make sure that the voices of the Africans be heard."

He was dismayed to discover that the limited material available on African higher education was largely written by Westerners and utterly failed to reflect a genuinely African perspective. "So we pledged that the authors would come from Africa," he says.

This proved, however, an easier promise to make than to keep.

First, authors had to be found to write chapters on the state of higher education in each of Africa's 54 countries. Many of those nations are beset by civil war, poverty, and a complete lack of academic freedom.

Some scholars - particularly those in Arab or Islamic states in North Africa - wouldn't even consider writing for a Western publication, for fear that they would lose their jobs or perhaps even end up in jail.

Other potential authors proved simply too hard to reach. E-mails got bounced back, and many phone calls never went through.

Teferra says he spent days in front of a fax machine, trying to send messages to potential contributors.

But the challenges didn't end there. Even after authors were found, the harsh reality of life in many African countries dealt continual setbacks to completion of the handbook.

Even in less dangerously repressive regimes, many of the contributors felt the need to massage the truth in order to avoid trouble at home.

"They had constraints - governments which are 'reasonably' repressive," says Philip Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education and a co-editor of the handbook. "To get people to write objectively and frankly about the problems faced in their countries wasn't easy."

Political turmoil also played a central role. In December of 2000, Teferra received an e-mail from a contributor in Sierra Leone. At the time, the nation was still in the midst of a brutal civil war, and the author was explaining why his chapter was late.

"Circumstances occasionally get out of our immediate control," the author wrote in the e-mail. "The rebel war frequently impose [sic] unexpected responsibilities and technical difficulties, such as computer brake-down [sic] and clerical employee tardiness ... we regret any inconvenience this causes."

In the end, however, Teferra's diligence paid off. Seventy-five percent of the handbook's chapters were written by authors in-country.

Most of the other submissions came from native Africans living abroad, mostly in Europe and the United States.

The ravages of war and poverty

But the contributors paint a fairly grim picture of higher education in Africa. The entire continent has only 300 institutions that could even be classified as universities, making Africa the world's least developed region in terms of both institutions and enrollments.

While Nigeria and Sudan top the list with 45 and 26 universities respectively, at least six African nations, including Djibouti, Cape Verde, and Gambia, have no universities at all.

In some nations, such as Somalia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many postsecondary institutions have been completely or partially destroyed by political unrest and war.

Even in a country such as Kenya, one of the few African nations that can boast something of a comprehensive higher- education system, things are very bad.

Charles Ngome, a lecturer at Kenyatta University and author of the handbook's chapter on Kenya, writes that "declining public expenditures,... decaying infrastructure,... and a high rate of unemployment among graduates" have combined to throw higher education in Kenya into a deep crisis.

Severe "brain drain" is another problem. For example, 50 percent of all Ghanaian doctors practice outside the country, leaving a depleted training force at the university level.

In many African nations, all of these problems are compounded by long- standing economic and political crises, the legacy of colonialism, and HIV/AIDS.

And yet there is also much in the book that inspires admiration.

Take the case of Liberia, which in 1997 saw the end of an eight-year civil war. "The mere fact that higher education goes on in such countries, even in difficult circumstances, is in many ways so impressive," Dr. Altbach says.

A plea for attention and funding

Altbach says he hopes that the publication of "African Higher Education" will be the first step toward renewed support for the continent's universities. Both interest and funding have waned during the past several decades as attention has gravitated toward primary and secondary education.

Experts say support will be particularly crucial in the coming decade. Across the continent, demand for postsecondary training is growing rapidly.

At the same time, African governments are beginning to recognize the vital link between higher education and sustainable development.

That's why African educators and administrators need to have access to the information in the handbook, Altbach says. Toward that end, it will be distributed for free to universities and research institutions across the continent.

Learning from other Africans

Education officials in African governments will also receive copies. "The hope," Altbach says, "is that ministers of education can turn to this book when thinking about higher-education reform, and find out what other African countries have done, not what the US has done."

For his part, Teferra is just glad to see it finished. "I've already lost two Christmases and two New Years to it," he says with a smile.

But he's not taking much of a break. He's already at work on a related project - the launch of a quarterly journal covering higher-education in Africa.

Country profiles

Excerpts from the forthcoming book, "African Higher Education," edited by Damtew Teferra


Up to the end of 1980s, there existed in Liberia a sort of higher education "system." However ... Liberia's war of 1989-1997 left the university in total ruins.... Estimates of necessary repairs and renovations made in 1991 put the cost at over $20 million, and the current government ... has paid very little attention to the needs of the institution.... The war-related damage to the institution has set it back for at least a half-century, maybe more. Many of the senior scholars who fled the country due to the war are unlikely to return. The current staff work six to eight months before they receive one month's pay, which is less than $50....


In all policy statements issued by the Angolan government, high priority is given to education in general, and higher education in particular. However, the actual investment in this field lags far behind declared intentions, and has even been decreasing since 1992, ranging at present well below the averages of sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries in general. The quality of education in Angola is very low. Three-quarters of the students do not pass their annual exams, have to repeat greater or lesser parts of the programs, or drop out. The role the university plays in the development of the country is highly questionable.

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