Salvaging Africa's university campuses

By: John Mulaa

One of the most thrilling things about much of Africa is the insatiable thirst for education evident everywhere. Enrollment rolls have increased in leaps and bounds over the years in nearly all countries, helped by rather belated recognition by policy makers that access has something to do with cost to learners.

Lower the costs enough and floodgates of demand open. That may lead to other problems, but that is another story. But even with impressive enrollment numbers, there is every indication that not all is well with education systems.

Across the continent, the systems are becoming increasingly dysfunctional. in many places, the youth attend schools and institutions of learning in name only.

in truth, no much useful knowledge is being passed, which spells dire consequences for the continent down the road. Part of the blame must go to Africa's development partners. in the 1970s and 1980s, they, together with compliant African governments, focused attention and resources on primary or elementary education, arguing, sometimes justifiably, that it was at that level that the greatest returns on investment in the sector were to be had.

it all sounded reasonable and good, but the upshot was that higher education was given a short shrift.

Even some countries, such as Kenya that experienced an explosion in the number of universities, public and private, tertiary education was under funded to an appalling extent. The results are now in and they are unsightly.

The New York Times reports that African universities are "jammed and crumpling." A recent story in the paper focused primarily on university education in Senegal. But with a few changes of names and such like, the article could very well have been describing the situation in any African country.

What it boils down to is the neglect of African universities has become plainly obvious. Many older universities on the continent whose names had considerable standing back then are mostly pale shadows of their former selves. Overcrowded and under funded, few believe that they offer a competitive education in the current globalized environment.

Some extraordinary students emerge from those institutions and go on to make a name when they enter far more competitive education systems in America, Europe or Asia. But they are the exception, not the norm. The New York Times say, "The decrepitude (of African universities) is forcing the best and brightest from countries across Africa to seek their education and fortunes abroad and depriving dozens of nations of homegrown expertise that could lift millions out of poverty."

That is the crux of the matter. Recognition is growing that a corrective is necessary if African universities are to be salvaged in order for them to assume the role they ceased playing a long while back.

Development talk is shifting away from primary education alone. Universities are beginning to attract some attention, and it is about time.

Kenya is particularly well suited to emblematize the shift. With a burgeoning number of universities, private and public, a history of sending an equivalent of an entire freshman class every year for studies abroad, and, underlying it all, a fantastic popular yearning to get an education and to get ahead, Kenya is one place where education is taken very seriously.

Trouble is local public universities, the most accessible of the lot, are in a slide that shows little sign of abetting. Commentary about the quality of what the universities are offering is indicative of the break of faith in the efficacy of the institutions.

in response to pitiful public investment in them, the universities are in danger on turning into diploma mills that dish out certificates not backed by substance. At the end of the day, substance determines winners and losers in the highly competitive international environment we live in.

The need to salvage African universities is dire. Unless action is taken sooner rather than later, universities in Africa will become yet another nail in the coffin of the continent's aspirations.