By Mary Njeri Kinyanjui
There are concerns about the waning quality of education in African universities. The lack of quality is not only reflected by the dismal position of African universities in global rankings, but also by the declining number of African academics publishing in high-impact journals, such as African Affairs and the Journal of Modern Economies. Quality depends on commitment, creativity, hard work, and resilience. While African scholars have no shortage of these attributes, a number of ideological and methodological issues have curtailed their deployment.
The lecturer is no longer measured by intellectual abstraction, revolutionary ideas, clarity of thought, wide reading, or papers published. The lecturer is instead measured on the basis of consumption: the car one drives, the house one lives in, the clothes one wears, or the people in high society one interacts with. Instead of lecturers demonstrating solidarity with peasants, artisans, and traders, they have become champions of exploitative global value chains and financial institutions. Ideas of humanism, Pan-Africanism, ujamaa (familyhood), and ubuntu (humanity to others) have been thrown out of academic discourse.
Debates that were once hosted on university campuses have been transferred to expensive, high-end hotels. Participation in these debates is by invitation only, a practice that locks out alternative perspectives. Holding academic discussions in these grandiose edifices enriches hoteliers instead of advancing scholarship. Research and fellowships have been transferred to NGOs and are dependent on donor funding and dictates.
My PhD supervisor, David Keeble, recently retired, started out as an industrial geographer in the early 1960s. He explored the processes of industrial activity in the U.K. and later in the European Union. In Africa, however, it’s difficult to independently nurture one’s discipline or pursue a new line of thinking. Developed countries think decades ahead and lay out strategies involving academic research to achieve their objectives. They set the agenda and fund it, while we fall in line. When they focus on population, we set up institutes for population studies. When they focus on sustainable development, we write thousands of papers on the subject. When they focus research on democracy, it becomes a buzzword. Research priorities in Africa are fluid and change like fashion in line with donor preferences. When donor preferences change, support for past areas of focus immediately end. Disciplines like geography, history, philosophy, religion, literature, and languages have been starved of funding as emphasis has shifted to disciplines in science and technology. Student enrollment in ”unfashionable” disciplines has dropped. The failure to devote resources and expertise to relevant strategic disciplines or strands of thinking in African academia does a disservice to the continent as a whole.
In universities, student enrollment figures have become the main measure of success. An advanced degree has become a symbol of status rather than a pursuit for knowledge. In the first 10 years after receiving my PhD, no one addressed me as Daktari (Doctor). But at some point in the 2000s, people who used to call me Njeri or Mary started calling me Daktari, and it became my name. Daktari and Professor became part of the everyday vocabulary. Academic achievements are used to create class stratification or merely attract job opportunities. Many academics who condemn hero worship when it comes to political leaders do not oppose being worshipped as academic heroes.
Academics have become advisers and consultants to governments, NGOs, the U.N., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Government officers would rather obtain advice from the academics themselves than read their work. Academics have had to write simplified papers to inform policy. Theoretical underpinnings are not given priority. Research is no longer being used as a tool to understand the processes of transformation. In the pursuit for development, academic inquiry has been reduced to simplistic comparative studies of societies without seeking to understand how they are interconnected. Spending time comparing African cities with Western cities, for example, robs African academics of the time and creativity to focus on the evolution of cities in Africa. The results of this effort only highlight what is missing instead of examining how the cities can reach their potential.
African academics who attempt to introduce new thinking are often dismissed. During a presentation I gave at the African Studies Association and the American Geographers Association, I was frustrated when people walked out of my sessions and the panel organizers failed to follow up on my papers. My presentation elicited this response because I was going against popular thinking by arguing that peasants and artisans can spur growth.
Collaborations and memoranda of understanding with universities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia are new phenomena in research in African universities. They are not, however, partnerships for equal partners. Usually the African academic becomes a glorified research assistant and manages fieldwork and data-gathering duties. The African academic isn’t involved in the conceptualization of the research project, but rather is more often the one who implements the project. It becomes difficult to theorize and write about a project that one has not formulated, so it is often the partner’s ideas that dominate the final product. While academics in the West have access to large grants to advance their research on a wide variety of subjects, such grants are not available to African scholars. African scholars have to compete for grants on themes that have been already decided elsewhere by financiers.
Rather than one-sided partnerships, Africa needs collaborations that will free the productive and competitive energies of its people. Indians have made use of such collaborations and become a force to be reckoned with, developing their own Silicon Valley. The Chinese, too, have used collaborations and come up with hybrid capitalism and their own technologies. Why should intellectualism in Africa lead only to back-seat academics?
Discussions of quality in African universities should not be narrowed to large classes or lack of finances and networks. Quality in African universities will be improved when the ideological narrative begins to embrace fresh and alternative viewpoints on both a continental and global scale. In a 1998 African renaissance forum, South African politician Thabo Mbeki observed that Africa cannot renew itself if its upper echelons are a mere parasite on the rest of society, enjoying a self-endowed mandate that blocks development and ensures that our continent perpetuates its position on the periphery of the world economy. As long as the leadership of African academia follows this pattern, the continent will suffer from a deficit of innovative thinking.
Mary Njeri Kinyanjui is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.
[Photo courtesy of Adrian Frith]