African University Traditions, Historical Perspective

  • N’Dri Thérèse Assié-LumumbaEmail author
Living reference work entry


The early African university education/higher education system was characterized by its entire or partial indigenous origin. In contrast, contemporary African universities are of European colonial legacy. Despite its earlier experiences, the continent is now the world region with the lowest university enrollment. Its 54 countries have major differences in institutional capacity. The numbers and types range from a single public university in some small countries like São Tomé and Príncipe to dozens of universities like in South Africa and Egypt and more than a 100 universities and colleges like in Algeria and Nigeria. In the 2015–2016 and 2016–2017 editions of international ranking system, no African institution was among the first 100 universities. While this ranking is controversial, it suggests Africa’s standing in global knowledge production.

In a recent book, Göransson and Brundenius (2011) analyze the evolving mission of universities in the changing local and global contexts. Some of the changes in Africa are addressed in African Higher Education in Transition: Recurrent Impediments, Emerging Challenges and New Potentialities (Assié-Lumumba Forthcoming).

This paper, structured under three headings, critically examines African universities in various historical moments. The first section discusses indigenous African and Afro-Islamic/Muslim institutions before they were disrupted by centuries of large-scale enslavement followed by colonization. The second section analyzes institutions of European/Western origins from the nineteenth century to the post-independence period. The third section, followed by the conclusion, reviews the new complex landscape of universities.

Indigenous and Afro-Islamic Institutions

Various socio-historical, political, and broader societal factors contribute to shaping and redefining the university. Eric Ashby (1964: 3) argues: “The university is a medieval institution” that reproduces a certain ideal rooted in the past and yet at the same time “has kept pace with the mutations of society.” Thus, the idea and history of universities in Africa are intertwined with broader African history.

Two critical dimensions define the longest period in African social history, with the emergence and evolution of higher education/university and indigenous knowledge systems that lasted thousands of years within the Nile Valley Civilization (Ben-Jochannan and Clarke 1991; Ajayi et al. 1996). The second component relates to the “Afro-Islamic” institutions of higher learning.

African “indigenous higher education produced and transmitted new knowledge necessary for understanding the world, the nature of man (sic), society, God and various divinities, the promotion of agriculture and health, literature and philosophy” (Ajayi et al. 1996: 5).

It has been argued that “the roots of the University as a community of scholars, with an international outlook but also with responsibilities within particular cultures can be traced back to two institutions that developed in Egypt in the last two or three centuries B.C. and A.D.” (Ajayi et al. 1996: 5), with two models, namely the Alexandria model and the monastic system with complex and sophisticated knowledge production (Ajayi et al. 1996; Lulat 2005).

Earlier African institutions fulfilled the educational mission for knowledge sake and practical applications in different domains of society. As Lulat (2005) points out, “the Egyptians may not have had exact replicas of the modern university or college, but … they did possess an institution that, from their perspective, fulfilled some of the roles of higher education institution. One such institution dating from around c. 2000 B.C. E. was the per-ankh (or the House of Life)” which had the Egyptian temples as their sites composed of larges campuses (Lulat 2005: 44). This Egyptian case must be located within the broader framework of the Nile Valley Civilization, which started in the Upper Nile regions including Ethiopia and expanded in the Lower Nile in Egypt.

The second type of institution of higher learning in Africa before the European colonial rule emerged from the positive and creative cross-fertilization of indigenous African culture and new impetus from Islam and its various effects (Kane 2011, 2012; Sy 2014) especially in the North, West, and East Africa. Of particular significance was the creation of Karawiyyinn in Fez (Morocco) in 859 A.D., Al-Azhar in Cairo (Egypt) in 970, and Sankore in Timbuktu from the twelfth century. Al-Azhar is considered the “oldest continuously operating University in the world” (Arab Information Center 1966: 282).

These institutional innovations reflected an advanced level of fusion and symbiosis of African and Islamic/Arabian cultures. Important aspects included the use of Arabic directly or to transcribe African languages (Ajami) for learning (Hassane 2008; Kane 2011). Mazrui (2012: 5) argues:

Muslim Africa virtually invented the global university in its simpler form. The standing monuments to that Muslim African invention consist today of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the Qarawiyin Center of Learning in Morocco. … These two Afro-Muslim institutions are centuries older than Oxford and Cambridge in England, … Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

These Afro-Islamic universities did not expand beyond the areas where the religious anchor was absent. The cataclysmic TransAtlantic Enslavement that lasted for centuries followed by the colonization of the entire continent at the end of the nineteenth century led to stagnation of these universities which even earlier did not transition into secular institutions responding to broader needs of society. In contrast, contemporary Western universities that are becoming a global model even in countries that were not colonized were created by Christian Churches, especially congregations of the Catholic Church (e.g., Jesuits and Oratorians). These institutions were indigenous to Europe, as they emerged and grew organically from European socio-historical realities. In contrast, European education traditions in Africa were created by Europeans to fulfill their interests during the colonization, neo-colonial era pressures, and dependency (Mazrui 1975). Thus, even if with time they become more rooted in African contexts, they are not indigenous to Africa, given their history, as articulated in the following section.

African Universities of European/Western Influence: The Colonial and Post-Colonial Contexts

The Africans under colonial rule overwhelmingly rejected education designed and managed by European missionaries and colonial governments (Foster 1965; Assié-Lumumba 2016). During the period of informal colonization, until the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885 and the formal partitioning of the continent, some missionaries established educational programs on coastal posts and sent to Europe a few Africans to acquire some mainly religious education. However, generally, when European education was introduced in the context of colonization across the African continent, it was rejected. The Africans who attended colonial schools were enlisted by force (Foster 1965; Assié-Lumumba 2016). The Africans’ negative attitude was part of their resistance to colonization and refusal to be “mis-educated” by the colonizers who wanted to control their mind and give them only basic education. The Europeans were fully aware that knowledge from formal education was likely to empower the colonized. As captured by the Belgians in the Congo, “pas d’élite pas the problème” (no élite no problem), meaning that without advanced education among the colonized there would be no risk of an elite/critical thinkers challenging and putting at risk the colonial system (Lumumba-Kasongo 1981). Thus, higher education, especially university education, was off-limit for the colonized. By the end of World War II, despite their initial rejection of European education, Africans had realized that, indeed, even rudimentary schooling carried a certain power (Ki-Zerbo 1972). Thus, they demanded equal access to all types and levels of European education, including universities.

The first African country to have a modern higher education institution of Western origin was Liberia, a state established in 1821 by the American Colonization Society (ACS), for formerly enslaved African Americans who wanted to return to Africa. It became an independent country in 1847 with continued American influence. In 1862, Liberia College was created and became the University of Liberia in 1951. Created by the Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century, Cuttington College in Liberia experienced several interruptions and reopened in 1949. The Americo-Liberians adopted a motto of “the love of freedom brought us here” but created an unequal society where they became the self-appointed rulers imitating their former American masters. Thus, university education reflected the unequal social structure.

Ethiopia was the only African country that remained free of colonization by defeating its assigned colonial power, Italy in 1896, despite it trying again to occupy Ethiopia in the early 1930s. Ethiopia’s contemporary higher education was conceived as a fusion of American and various European traditions including the British and Germany.

In British colonies, the British Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies and the Phelps-Stokes Commission played vital roles in defining higher education. In 1939, the British Governors of West African colonies discussed and agreed on the creation of a full-fledged West African university (Ajayi et al. 1996). Several “colleges,” including Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum (Sudan), Makerere Government College in Kampala (Uganda), Yaba Higher College in Lagos (Nigeria), Princess of Wales School and College in Achimota (Ghana), and Fourah Bay College in Freetown (Sierra Leone) were created between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1920s. Although most of them were initially vocational/technical secondary schools, they constituted the foundation of post-independence universities.

The French proclaimed policy of assimilation ontologically on contradiction with the goal of colonization. It did not include higher education for the colonized Africans. They created the Instituts des Hautes Études in Dakar, Tananarive, and Abidjan shortly before the independence process in the 1950s/1960s. In their North African protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia and settler colony of Algeria, the French did not promote higher education either and, besides a few precolonial Afro-Islamic institutions, the contemporary universities were created after independence.

In general, North African countries with no conventional colonial experiences, including Libya (with Italian and British colonial influence) and Egypt, currently have larger number of universities, some of which use Arabic, while other African universities in general use languages of the former colonial powers.

The Vatican/Catholic Church and the Protestants later heavily influenced the Belgian colonial education system in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to a certain extent in Burundi and Rwanda. Belgian policy emphasized mass basic schooling with higher education reserved only for future priests. Full-fledged universities were created after independence.

Portugal, too, ignored the aspirations of the Africans and thus former Portuguese colonies created their universities after independence acquired in the 1970s. Similarly, Equatorial Guinea, which acquired its independence from Spain in 1968, Zimbabwe, a former British settler colony with white minority rule until it acquired its independence in 1980, and Namibia, which fought for independence from South Africa until 1990, created their universities after independence.

In South Africa, Apartheid policy defined all education along racial lines with Whites, Colored, Indians, and Blacks, with inequitable resource allocation for the institutions leading to unequal quality. Despite the post-Apartheid policy to increase enrollment of under-represented groups and promote diversity in all institutions, the inequality from Apartheid is still noticeable in education.

Local-Global Dynamics and New University Landscape

Zeleza (2016: 4) states that “in 1944, the entire continent had a grand total of 31 institutions of higher education, far fewer that the number of countries!” Even if in 2015 Africa still had fewer institutions, with 1639 institutions Africa and was second only to Oceania with 140 compared to Latin America and the Caribbean with 3060, North America 3826, Europe 4042, and Asia up to 6100 (Zeleza 6) argues: “It was in Africa, however, where the magnitude of growth was the largest from a very low base of course. The number of higher education institutions on the continent increased by 52.87 times between 1945 and 2015” (Zeleza 6).

There have been several generations of African institutions since the 1950s. The mission of the first post-independence universities was clearly articulated by African policymakers and scholars, for instance in Creating the African University: Emerging Issues of the 1970s (Yesufu 1973). The first institutions were created amidst the euphoria of human capital theory, which stipulates a linear and positive correlation between formal education and individual socio-economic attainment, as well as national development (Schultz 1977). These were public universities with broad societal mission, and comprehensive disciplinary coverage.

The internal and external shock of the economic crisis of the 1970s–1980s and the ensuing misguided and infamous policy of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) brought stagnation, decay, and underfunding of African universities. In the absence of alternatives to education, considering the slow or nonexistent industrialization, and the UNESCO–World Bank joint report Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril or Promise (Task Force on Higher Education and Society 2000) the resurgence of relentless demand, a new generation of universities arose, specialized foci, for instance in science, technology, or agriculture (Assié-Lumumba 2006).

In recent years, eUniversities or open and mega-universities have increased while the University of South Africa (UNISA) created in 1946 was the only one for decades. Some have a dual-mode delivery combining distance and face-to-face learning, while others such as the Zimbabwe Open University and the Open University of Tanzania are single-mode virtual institutions.

Accelerated globalization and liberalization in the context of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) policies and “agreements” have an impact on higher education (Cossa 2008), specifically the emergence and increase of private universities. Many private institutions are secular while others are sectarian, with the dominance of Christian denominations and a few Islamic universities, often connected to broader global networks. Hence, they are well funded and tend to exhibit relatively higher quality in terms of cognitive learning than for-profit private institutions.

Only South Africa under Apartheid created universities for the Blacks in rural settings. Post-colonial universities in Africa have been urban and predominantly in the capital cities. However, many African countries are now creating community colleges and universities in rural areas (Jacob et al. 2009) to contribute to meet relentless demand. These institutions encounter numerous challenges with regards to infrastructure and communication, qualification of the teaching, and administrative support staff’s willingness to settle in rural areas.

A new type of institution targets under-represented groups, especially women. Besides the Ahfad University for Women in the Sudan, Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology in Nairobi (Kenya) and Women’s University in Africa in Zimbabwe have been created.

Extensions of institutions of the Global North, including distance-learning delivery and physical sites in Africa, have increased. Other recent complexities reflect the increasing roles of newly industrialized and emerging economies in African higher education. For instance, China as a rising player has been creating Confucius institutes. Given South Africa’s relatively broader/quantitative institutional capacity despite the issues of inequality, transnational education is not a burning issue. However, in many other African countries, it offers opportunities but presents major problems including coherent policies of higher education for development.

Concluding Remarks

Despite the continued lower enrollment rates in comparison to other regions of the world, African countries made unprecedented achievements after independence, in terms of the number of universities built and enrollment rates since independence. Regardless of their respective trajectories, African universities and their stakeholders are still struggling with the colonial legacies (Mazrui 1975) which, for instance, have contributed to fuel student protests, for instance in South Africa, demanding the “decolonization of the mind.”

Assié-Lumumba (2016: 58) argues that “African students pursuing higher education in Europe played significant roles in the anti-colonial struggle. In their determination to make an impact, it became critical for them to organize.” Hence, several student organizations of Pan-African perspectives were formed from the beginning of the twentieth century such as the West African Student Association in London and Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France (FEANF) demanding unconditional independence of African countries. The movements continued after independence although some governments wanted to control and co-opt students by creating student sections of ruling parties, especially during the decades of one-party systems under many brutal regimes. In South Africa, the youth and especially the students constituted an integral part of the struggle against Apartheid. The current student movements (Luescher et al. 2016) have been demanding that decolonization be addressed with commitment to promote Africanization. They have been requesting that unequal educational opportunity as corollary of historical inequality in the distribution and access to resources. Such grievances are in line with the historical struggle. An important dimension worth mentioning is the fact that in the current period of the twenty-first century, students now use digital technologies extensively (e.g., social media) to mobilize, strategize, and organize movements to advance their causes.

The idea of university prevails (Assié-Lumumba 2010; Assié-Lumumba and Lumumba-Kasongo 2011; Zeleza and Olukoshi 2004). However, a critical issue is how to pursue this idea in promoting national development agendas amidst the multiplicity of external and private actors with different or even conflicting objectives. Given the power relations, what are the challenges and possibilities of transnational universities?

Brain drain is being explored for brain gain in creating positions for temporary or permanent returnees of scholars of African descent. One of the facilitating programs is the African Diasporan Fellows program sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

On the whole, it is imperative to craft visions for African integrated development with different types of universities in alignment. The African Union’s Pan-African University for holistic and sustainable social progress is conceptualized to respond to prevailing challenges in making use of opportunities.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Africana Studies and Research CenterCornell UniversityIthacaUSA